Sarasota County Moves Again To Restrict Recreational Marijuana

The bayfront city of Sarasota, FL. in Sarasota County. Photo: Shutterstock

SARASOTA COUNTY – Four states voted to legalize recreational marijuana for adults in November, and in early December, the U.S. House voted to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level.

But as several constitutional amendments are likely headed to Florida voters in 2022 – and as state lawmakers look to consider a bill this year that would make it available for adults – Sarasota County officials again want to make it clear that recreational marijuana will not be allowed locally.

In the coming months, commissioners will be looking to craft a resolution that would give Sarasota County “home rule authority” over the use of recreational marijuana if it’s made legal statewide.

The effort contrasts with a growing number of voters who support legalizing marijuana and is contrary to the city of Sarasota, which recently voted to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of cannabis.

While details about the proposed resolution are still hazy, county commissioners in December made it clear that they want Rob Lewis, the head of the county’s government and businesses relations department, to begin working immediately with Florida lawmakers to either thwart legislation or carve out caveats that would allow the county to make its own recreational marijuana rules.

“Start lobbying now, not in two years when Morgan and Morgan gets another lump of money to put it as a constitutional amendment,” said Commission Chairman Alan Maio during a planning retreat in December.

Maio was referring to the Orlando lawyer John Morgan, who spearheaded the effort to legalize medical marijuana.

“Right now, we start lobbying everybody, we want to decide like, county by county, like Colorado did, about recreational marijuana,” Maio said.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, sponsored a bill introduced in the 2020 Legislature to make marijuana available for adult use.

Neither the bill introduced by Brandes nor a companion House bill introduced by state Rep. Carlos G. Smith, D-Orlando passed, but they both plan to reintroduce the same legislation in the 2021 session that begins March 2, the Tallahassee Democrat reported.

“Once they start writing it, they’re going to want to say that you can’t – that state law supersedes everything and you better not do it that way,” said Commissioner Nancy Detert, who served almost 20 years as a Florida lawmaker. “But they could give us the option to opt out.”

In 2018, the County Commission attempted a final decision on a proposed ban on the cultivation, processing and sale of recreational marijuana. However, those efforts were thwarted because the ordinance inadvertently outlawed the sale of CBD oil and hemp, products legally sold over-the-counter in grocery stores.

The proposed ordinance to ban recreational marijuana was passed during the first of two required public hearings in 2018. It was initially brought forward at the urging of Commissioner Mike Moran.

“I personally want to do everything in my power to send a clear message that recreational marijuana is not welcome in Sarasota County,” Moran said then.

In the last two years, the city of Sarasota decriminalized small amounts of marijuana and public support of legalizing it has grown significantly.

A 2019 poll by the University of South Florida reported that 64% favored outright legalizing cannabis. Only 10 states remain where it is completely illegal.

The discussion to prohibit adult recreational marijuana use emerged again in December after Sarasota County leaders denied a proposal by Trulieve to build a medical marijuana dispensary in Osprey.

During the hearing, commissioners hinted at the possibility of lobbying for local control on the issue and expressed a concern that certain medical marijuana facilities could offer cannabis on a recreational basis if it were to be made legal.

Make it Legal Florida, which is leading the petition drive for one of the constitutional amendments, has included language that would permit medical marijuana treatment centers to sell, distribute or dispense those products.

The proposed amendment would also permit adults 21 years or older to “possess, use, purchase, display, and transport up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana and marijuana accessories for personal use for any reason.”

Deputy County Attorney Josh Moye told commissioners that if the state passes recreational marijuana use, it would pre-empt the county from passing its own rules. However, the Legislature could make allowances for local control.

“I do believe that a lot of these (medical marijuana facilities) are going to come into town and hope to flip to recreational eventually because that is where the moneymaker is,” said Commissioner Christian Ziegler. “With that said, there is not much that we can control outside of not approving recreational in Sarasota County.”