Orange County mayor: It feels like we have a gun to our head on whether to ban marijuana dispensaries

Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs described the decision of choosing whether to ban medical marijuana dispensaries in the unincorporated parts of the county as having "a gun to our head."

A frustrated Jacobs made the remarks Tuesday at the first of two public hearings regarding two ordinances – the first would ban medical cannabis dispensaries in the unincorporated areas of Orange County while the second allows dispensaries with added restrictions, though both permit cultivation and processing. Despite 71 percent of Floridians approving an amendment to expand access to medical marijuana, strict guidelines from the state Legislature only allow municipal governments to ban dispensaries outright or regulate them like any other pharmacy. Several cities in the county, like Winter Garden and Apopka, have decided on an outright ban, while the City of Orlando considers the two dispensaries it has as "grandfathered" into the existing regulations. 

Wearing his green-and-black marijuana socks, state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, told Orange County commissioners he didn't want to defend the restrictions on local control that Tallahassee put before the board, but he did want to encourage commissioners to fully implement dispensaries.

"This will have a direct impact on patient access and affordability," he says. "The reality is that 100 percent of the costs of medical cannabis as medicine, for legitimate patients, is out of pocket. Insurance companies do not pay for even a penny of the cost of medicine for these patients. So, not only are they paying out-of-pockets costs for the medicine entirely, but if they have the product delivered to them in their home, because they can't travel to downtown Orlando within the city limits to visit a dispensary, the delivery fees that are added to those out-of-pocket costs can be exorbitant."

Smith said although he disagreed with the approach from conservative leaders in the Legislature, Florida's medical marijuana implementation was "substantially watered down" so that it wouldn't resemble marijuana laws in California or Colorado. Still, Jacobs says the state guidelines puts local governments "between a rock and a hard place."
click to enlarge Orange County mayor: It feels like we have a gun to our head on whether to ban marijuana dispensaries
Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
"To say if you don't like that [dispensaries], just ban it, that is a situation I cannot ever remember being in," Jacobs says. "We're told we want to be in a position of honoring the voters and implementing something but doing it in a way that we feel it best protects our communities against unintended consequences. We've done that with everything, alcohol sales, tobacco. This is the one time where it's like, 'If you don't stick to exactly what we have, ban it.' We really feel like we have a gun to our head that we better ban it."

Jacobs says she heard state lawmakers might be bringing changes down the pipe in 2018, which means the board may "need to hold off until we know what the rules of the game are." But Smith says when he spoke to Republican leaders about changes to Florida's cannabis guidelines, they indicated they wanted to wait until 2019 to see what changes are needed.

"[The Legislature] knows voters are angry," Smith says. "And I think that they put these choices in front of you as a trap to share the blame with local governments. … They've muddied the waters further and voters are just going to blame everyone. But I fear they’re going to blame you.”

Tricia Dennis came with her 17-year-old son Noah Dennis to speak to commissioners. Noah had a stroke before he was born, and five years ago, he weighed 44 pounds and was seizing uncontrollably. After a lot of research, Dennis decided leave the state to treat Noah with medical cannabis because she felt he was "wasting away." After he was placed on medication, Noah began talking and looking at his mother, even grabbing her hand, which was unthinkable before, she says.

"I call it the day I met my son," Dennis says. "He was making noise, and we were talking. It was amazing. There's no words. I never thought we would have that moment."

Dennis told commissioners she doesn't want to leave her home in Orlando, but she will if it means better access to medicine for Noah.

"You talk about having a gun to your head, Mayor Jacobs?" Dennis says. "That’s your child.”

Kirk Root, who is vice chairman of the county's Disability Advisory Board, says in the past, using marijuana was the only thing that helped him function normally, unlike the pharmaceutical medications he took for his epilepsy and spasticity from cerebral palsy. He's trying to become a qualified medical marijuana patient, but it's expensive – doctor's appointments, examinations and certifications will cost him over $200, and his monthly check from the government is only $735.

"I'm sick of breaking the law to use my medicine of choice," he says. "It's an undue burden."

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