By Rachel Brown Hackney
Before approving the third medical marijuana dispensary in the unincorporated areas of Sarasota County, county commissioners expressed dismay that the latest company was not represented by anyone other than the local agent for the project.
They also asked multiple questions of the county planner who presented the proposal, as well as the agent — Don Neu of NeuMorris LLC in Sarasota — about the security measures that will be taken at this third location.
Finally, they repeated a concern they raised with the two earlier applications: They do not want to see the medical marijuana facilities automatically transformed into shops selling recreational marijuana, if the latter drug becomes legal in the state of Florida.
“By the time we get to the sixth or seventh one of these (dispensary applications),” Commissioner Alan Maio said on July 10, “they’ll just be rolling right through.”
Nonetheless, only Commissioner Michael Moran voted against granting the Special Exception to Columbia Care Florida, so it can open the dispensary in a building located at 6979 S. Tamiami Trail, in the Gulf Gate area.
Columbia Care Florida LLC’s website says the firm is “the nation’s leading medical cannabis company.”
Moran explained that he supports the use of medical marijuana. However, as he did with the previous applicants for Special Exceptions for dispensaries, Moran asked whether Columbia Care would be willing to stipulate that it would not at any point in the future sell recreational marijuana at the site.
“I don’t know that I’m authorized to [answer] that,” Neu replied. “I’m here as the agent.”
No company representative was present, Neu added.
“That’s an interesting question,” Commissioner Christian Ziegler said of Moran’s inquiry. “Could this site just make a flip?” Ziegler asked, if recreational marijuana became legal in Florida. “Would that have to come before us?”
Ziegler added, “I wouldn’t want it to expand to recreational marijuana.” (Ziegler was not on the board when it approved the first two dispensaries in 2018.)
Assistant County Attorney Joshua Moye explained that the ability of the board members to have any say-so on such a change of the business model would be dependent upon how a state recreational marijuana law was written.
Details of the latest plans
During the staff presentation, Planner Everett Farrell pointed out that the Special Exception petition focused on property that last housed a mattress store. The parcel is zoned Commercial General, he said, which is one of the county zoning districts in which medical marijuana dispensaries can be located, in accord with county regulations.
The property is about 0.55 acres, a staff report noted. It is north of Bispham Road and west of South Tamiami Trail, an aerial map showed.
In compliance with other facets of the applicable county ordinance, Farrell continued, the dispensary will be open only between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and between 7 a.m. and noon on Saturdays. No Sunday hours are allowed.
“An alarm system is required,” Farrell added.
Commissioner Nancy Detert was the first board member to ask for more details about the security plans for the dispensary.
“We require just the alarm system,” Farrell explained. State regulations, he continued, make it necessary for the business to have a security guard present when the facility is open.
Ziegler questioned Farrell about whether the business has to comply with the state security requirements.
“Yes, automatically,” Farrell responded.
Then Maio pointed out that he voted in favor of the first two dispensary petitions. “I think we’re just
With those earlier Special Exception requests, Maio continued, the company representatives gave the board “elaborate presentations,” including details about plans for armed security guards on the premises. “The third one comes to us, and all they’re doing is fulfilling [the requirement that] they’ll have a security system.”
Maio asked Farrell, “Are we being put on some sort of slippery slope here?”
“I don’t believe so,” Farrell told him.
“Maybe they’re meeting a bare minimum,” Detert said, “and the other two … went the extra mile on security.”
During his presentation, Neu, the agent for the applicant, pointed out, “Yes, there will be armed guards. That’s part of the state statute. … “It’s a heavily regulated industry with security required.”
He also explained that the necessary landscaping and parking spaces already are on site for the business to be able to comply with the applicable county regulations.
“You put on the record what I needed,” Maio told Neu. “I maybe jumped the gun. I’m just uncomfortable with the whole thing.”
Future applicants for dispensaries, Maio added, “need to just make that crystal clear” that they will comply with the state security stipulations.
Moran also asked Neu how customers of the dispensary would pay for the products.
Columbia Care will take credit cards, Neu said, along with cash.
After Chair Charles Hines closed the public hearing, Detert made the motion to approve the Special Exception, and Maio seconded it.
“These are our rules,” Maio said, referring to the discussion that the new business would comply with the county and state regulations. Nonetheless, Maio continued, “I will tell you that years down the road … a different commission … will be wondering what we were thinking when we approved all of these — three so far — when they flip to recreational marijuana. We’re just caught in that dilemma.”
Perhaps the commissioners should have another discussion about their own policy, Detert suggested.
Yet, she pointed out, she lives near the medical marijuana dispensary in Venice that the board members approved last year. She drives by it regularly, she continued, and she has seen no problems. “The parking’s good. There’s no congestion. You almost wouldn’t know it’s there. … So far, so good.”
Still, she said, “I think going forward, we need to monitor the ones that we have approved.”
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