By Mary Hladky
After more than two years of debate, the City Council is poised to decide whether to allow medical marijuana dispensaries to open in Boca Raton.
A majority of those speaking on Jan. 28 at the first public hearing on a proposed ordinance, including two representatives of medical marijuana dispensary companies, urged the council to allow them.
Eric Sevell noted that 76 percent of Boca Raton residents voted in favor of a state constitutional amendment in 2016 that legalized medical use of marijuana.
“I think you have arrived at a proper ordinance,” he said.
Another speaker said he has worked for a medical marijuana doctor and has seen how much it helps patients.
“To see them alive and well today, that convinced me to be able to continue to work,” he said.
Lauren Niehaus, a government relations specialist for Harvest Health and Recreation, which has six dispensaries in Florida, said the dispensaries want to be part of the fabric of the city.
“The goal is not to be the best dispensaries … but to be one of the best business partners,” she said.
But she and other company representatives urged council members to reduce the proposed size of dispensaries from 5,000 square feet to about 2,000, which is more in line with the size of existing dispensaries.
Two people spoke against the ordinance. Glenn Gromann, who has served on city boards, said they would bring crime to the city.
Marc Wigder, an attorney, urged council members not to allow too many.
“You can’t let it go everywhere,” he said.
Council members and city staff have long been leery of allowing dispensaries. The council approved a moratorium on them in 2014 and banned them in 2017.
But public opinion has gone the other way. In 2016, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved the constitutional amendment and the Legislature passed implementing legislation the next year.
Since then, the medical marijuana industry has taken off in Florida. Nearly 220 dispensaries are now on operating across the state with more than 30 located in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, according to the state’s Office of Medical Marijuana Use.
As of January, 304,445 patients have qualified to obtain medical marijuana and about 2,600 physicians have qualified to approve patients for its use.
Medical marijuana is used to help people with health conditions such as cancer, Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis and post-traumatic stress disorder.
But city staff has consistently opposed allowing the dispensaries to operate in the city. Their chief concern is that the state regulates medical marijuana and the dispensaries and gives cities almost no leeway to manage them or restrict how many can open once they decide to allow them.
Staff also noted in their report to the City Council that Boca Raton residents have access to dispensaries, just not within the city limits. Six dispensaries are operating in Deerfield Beach, one is in Boynton Beach and two are in unincorporated areas west and north of the city.
Under state law, dispensaries can be located anywhere zoning laws allow pharmacies but are not allowed within 500 feet of a school.
Pharmacies can’t sell medical marijuana because it is still classified as a controlled substance by the federal government.
City Council members will vote at the final public hearing in mid-February.
Mayor Scott Singer suggested that the city place a cap on how many can open in the city.
“The concern has been to balance the access to this form of medicine and the state’s limitation on home rule ability to zone in the normal way,” he said.