Miami Drops Ban On MMJ Dispensaries In City Limits

Photo: Shutterstock

After years of stonewalling, Miami on Thursday paved the way for the first medical marijuana dispensary to open in the city.

It was a major policy shift for a city that has spent years insisting that dispensaries were illegal even though Florida legalized medical cannabis in 2016.

The 3-2 vote by the City Commission effectively ended Miami’s full rejection of medical marijuana dispensaries, allowing the business that had been pressing the issue to get permits to open a dispensary. The action may lead to others applying to do the same.

Miami had been an outlier in Florida where medical cannabis has been legalized and regulated, along with several other states.

The city’s attorneys argued that federal law categorizing marijuana as an illegal drug trumps a 2016 statewide referendum that amended Florida’s Constitution to legalize a medical marijuana market. State law allows cities to ban dispensaries or regulate as if they were pharmacies. Miami chose to do neither and insisted a conflict between state and federal laws needed to be clarified first.

Meanwhile, other nearby cities in Miami-Dade County, including Coral Gables, Miami Beach and Aventura, as well as cities across the U.S., have included dispensaries in their zoning regulations without repercussions from federal authorities.

The vote Thursday allows the company that wants to open a dispensary at downtown 90 NE 11th St., near nightclubs Space and E11even, to partner with a licensed dispensary company to open the store.

The owner still has to go through the typical permitting process to open a business, which could take some time, so it’s unclear how soon a dispensary could open. The vote could also attract other dispensary companies to apply for permits.

In anticipation of a wave of applications, commissioners are expected to soon review the city’s zoning code and debate ways to regulate where dispensaries can open.

The different views on the commission surfaced during the debate. Commissioners Joe Carollo and Manolo Reyes voted against the measure, with both insisting that the city could be opening the floodgates without approving a regulation plan first.

“I’m of the opinion that before we move forward in voting on this we need to establish our ordinance that what are the procedures and guidelines for someone to open up such an establishment,” Carollo said. “Otherwise, we’re kind of making this into a sort of Cheech and Chong free-for-all.”

Reyes made similar comments. “You know how it is. They are going to be all over. Wherever you go and they are permitted, you see people smoking pot in the streets,” he said.

Commissioners Alex Díaz de la Portilla and Christine King argued that the city was on the wrong side of this issue. Díaz de la Portilla said he does not want a proliferation of dispensaries, but the 2016 referendum should be respected and the city should just regulate where they open.

“The people of Florida decided to allow medical marijuana dispensaries in Florida,” he said. “The city of Miami has to keep up with the times. Properly regulated, it’s the time to do it. We have to move forward and not look backwards.”

Commissioner Ken Russell, who has a medical marijuana card, said the federal government needs to catch up with cities and states who have legalized medical cannabis.

“Florida voters decided that it should be accessible in our state. Because of the conflict between state and federal law, however, our City Commission had to settle the dispute as to whether our residents would get that access,” said Russell, who is running for Congress as a Democrat. “We voted that they will.”

An attorney representing the company pursuing the dispensary, MRC44, declined to comment. MRC44 is managed by Romie Chaudhari, an entrepreneur and real estate investor based in Los Angeles. The company had sued the city to allow the dispensary, and a federal judge sent the case to state court but issued an opinion that the city had “failed to act” by not banning or regulating dispensaries.

City Attorney Victoria Méndez, suggested during Thursday’s hearing that the judge had shirked responsibility in not settling the conflict between the federal and state laws, but commissioners disagreed with her interpretation. She declined to comment after the vote.

The issue has been debated in City Hall for years, sometimes creating political friction and some controversial moments. For example, a few months after the 2016 referendum, Deputy City Attorney Barnaby Min used what he couched as a “poor example” to illustrate the city’s legal position.

“If the city of Miami for some infinite, God-forbidden reason thought having sex with a child was a great way to recover from some issue and so we wrote that into our city code, just because the city says that’s legal doesn’t mean it’s legal,” Min said during a Planning, Zoning and Appeals Board hearing in May 2017.

The stage is now set for a debate over where dispensaries should be allowed. The state allows local governments to regulate dispensaries in the same way they regulate pharmacies.

That process could result in legal challenges. The city of Miami Beach’s attempts to create zoning restrictions, which included pharmacies, led to lawsuits from dispensary companies.