Medical marijuana dispensaries will be able to open in unincorporated Brevard County, starting next month, as county commissioners voted unanimously to end a moratorium on their operation. The moratorium will expire on March 9.
The commission vote came after Viera residents Tom and Anita Unrath urged commissioners to help people who have medical conditions that could benefit by using medical marijuana.
Tom Unrath, a pastor at Messiah Evangelical Lutheran Church in Cocoa, is among them. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 14½ years ago, and MS is one of the medical conditions for which medical marijuana can be prescribed.
“This is a no-brainer, in my opinion,” Anita Unrath told commissioners, in supporting a proposal to allow the dispensaries to open in unincorporated Brevard. “It’s access to something that is not opioids. These dispensaries can be good for people. I think it would be good for the citizens of Brevard.”
She said she has watched her husband suffer.
“He suffers from a lot of pain,” Anita Unrath said. “It really can be terribly painful.”
Tom Unrath noted that there are 170,000 Floridians with MS, adding: “That’s a lot of people that can gain a lot of benefit from this. We’re talking about a medication, controlled, prescribed, responsibly distributed in places that, as Anita said, would be a benefit to the community. Look at me. It might help me.”
Florida statutes give counties and municipalities the ability to ban medical marijuana facilities. But, if a county or municipality chooses to allow dispensing facilities in its jurisdiction, it cannot enact ordinances for permitting or determining locations that are more restrictive than for pharmacies.
County commissioners on Tuesday were considering a measure to create new zoning rules that would cover both pharmacies and medical marijuana dispensaries. The proposed rules included allowing them only if they have access to major roads, and only if they have sanitary sewer and water utility hookups. Such a measure would have required two public hearings.
Instead, commissioners voted to let the moratorium expire on March 9. County Attorney Scott Knox said that means no additional action or public hearing is required.
Under state statute, the dispensaries would have to be at least 500 feet from a school.
County Commission Vice Chair Kristine Isnardi, a registered nurse, has been a supporter of allowing the dispensaries to open, saying it represents the will of the voters.
Florida voters in 2016 voted in favor of the constitutional amendment, known as Amendment 2, to allow medical marijuana for certain medical conditions. Amendment 2 gave doctors the authority to recommend marijuana for patients who have AIDS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, cancer, Crohn’s disease, epilepsy, glaucoma, HIV, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder and other debilitating medical conditions.
There was 71.3 percent support for the measure by voters — significantly more than the 60 percent required for approval of a state constitutional amendment. In Brevard County, 70.9 percent of the voters supported the amendment.
Although some people still have unfounded concerns about medical marijuana, Isnardi said it is a “less scary” medical option than opioids.
Isnardi on Aug. 22, Oct. 10 and Oct. 24 voted against moratorium proposals. The other four commissioners supported the moratorium in those votes.
During commission debate Tuesday, Isnardi said: “I can argue all day long, but you know where I stand on It. I think that we should do everything we can to allow people access to this alternative form of treatment, because I’ve see the other side of opioid abuse and other medications, and I think that this, honestly, has given people a lot of relief. It may not be my cup of tea, or yours. But I’ve seen it benefit people as well.”
She said some people have fears about medical marijuana dispensaries.
“Once we get past this fear that these treatment centers are going to open up all over our county, I think we can have an intelligent discussion, because there’s 27 dispensing locations in the entire state, and five of those are in Miami,” Isnardi said. “So I think once we can get past that and have a real discussion on what it means as a dispensary center, as opposed to a some place where people are going to be smoking marijuana outside, I think then we can have a rational, fair discussion that’s fair to all — not just the companies coming in, but not limit access to people that are in need of this medication.”
Isnardi said the commission has “beat this issue to death,” and needs to act to allow such facilities to open.
“I haven’t heard any commissioner up here have any kind of problem with people using medicine to help them do better,” County Commission Chair Rita Pritchett said. “I think people do need a good quality of life. I don’t think any medication to withhold from people who need it is a good thing. I think we need to do this.”
“We’re really in uncharted territory here,” Commissioner Curt Smith said. “I know that the voters voted for this, and I would like to give them every opportunity to access this product. My big problem here is unintended consequences, and unintended means we don’t know what they might be.”
Michael Patterson of Melbourne, chief executive officer of U.S. Cannabis Pharmaceutical Research & Development, told commissioners it is “extremely discriminatory” that there are no local medical marijuana dispensaries.
“It’s the right time to move forward,” Patterson said, noting that medical marijuana is legal is 29 other states.
Brevard County Planning and Development Director Tad Calkins said the dispensing facilities and their activities are regulated by the state, with video surveillance and employees registered with local law enforcement agencies, for example.
The Florida Department of Health ‘s Office of Medical Marijuana Use reports that it has registered 78,929 patients statewide who have been diagnosed by one of the 1,146 qualified physicians to prescribe medical marijuana. Upon being registered, individuals can apply for a medical marijuana use identification card, which allows them to receive treatment. The Department of Health has approved 52,619 ID cards.
The state has approved 13 medical marijuana treatment centers that have 27 approved retail dispensing locations. The 27 dispensing facilities are spread over 15 counties. None are in Brevard.
Among the nearby dispensing locations are Trulieve facilities in Edgewater and Orlando, and a Knox Medical facility in Orlando.
Brevard’s 16 cities and town have a patchwork of rules related to medical marijuana facilities, according to a Planning and Development Department analysts. Some have banned them entirely, while others have moratoriums in place.
Palm Bay, Rockledge, Satellite Beach and Titusville are among the Brevard municipalities that allow such facilities.
Calkins said there are 13 companies in Floridfa that each can have up to 25 dispensing faculties statewide, for a total of 325 potential facilities. That figure will increase once there are 100,000 registered users in the state.