After split decision against ban, county considers where to allow medical marijuana facilities
Flagler County commissioners considered banning medical marijuana facilities in unincorporated areas of the county Aug. 21 — a move that would have been a break with the decisions of their colleagues in Palm Coast and Flagler Beach.
"We have citizens here who want to use that, and I’m not going to make them leave the county to get their medicine, of any kind. Whether it’s aspirin or medical marijuana, I can’t be of clear conscience and do that.”— Nate McLaughlin, county commissioner
A potential ban wasn’t the issue on the agenda when commissioners considered medical marijuana at their Aug. 21 meeting. The agenda item was to allow medical marijuana — at least, in all of the areas that allow pharmacies.
But some commissioners didn’t want to do that.
“I am against this, 100%” Commissioner Greg Hansen said at the beginning of the discussion. Commissioner David Sullivan was similarly unsupportive, adding that the state had tied municipalities’ hands somewhat by leaving them limited ways to regulate the facilities. Under state law, municipalities can ban medical marijuana facilities entirely, or can treat them the way pharmacies are treated. They can’t be subjected to other, special rules.
Commissioner Charlie Ericksen was somewhat distrustful of drugs in general: He mentioned thalidomide, the morning sickness drug that caused a slew of birth defects in the late in 1950s. He also spoke of his own son’s struggles with marijuana, which one doctor had blamed on the fact that the son had been prescribed Ritalin as a youth.
Ericksen himself, recovering from surgery, had once found himself feeling increasingly reliant on doctor-prescribed Oxycontin, but was able to get off of it before it became an addiction.
“I don’t like this. I don’t like them being called treatment centers,” he said. “There’s no treatment here; they’re dispensing. …I just can’t say yes to this ordinance at the present time.”
Commissioners Donald O’Brien and Nate McLaughlin disagreed.
“It’s going to happen all around us, whether we like it or not,” O’Brien said. “And I’m sure we have registered users in the county . … If the city of Palm Coast decides to move forward, that pretty much covers most of the. … population in Flagler County. The time to — if you wanted to — stop the legalization from moving forward is well past where we are right now. … The fact is, it’s going to take place in our county whether we like it or not.”
Sullivan pointed out that because medical marijuana is treated as a medical supply under Florida law, the county wouldn’t even get sales tax from it. Adam Mengel, the county’s planning and zoning director, told commissioners that the county actually doesn’t have any pharmacies in unincorporated areas. So if the county gets a medical marijuana facility, that would be the only business in the county's unincorporated areas that's being regulated under the county's ordinances concerning pharmacies — even though it isn't one.
McLaughlin reminded his fellow commissioners that the kind of marijuana that would be available at medical marijuana facilities isn’t the kind people smoke to get high.
“This is not wholesale use of recreational marijuana. This is medical; this is by prescription only,” he said. “This is actually oils, pills and those other things,” not smokeable weed.
Kim Carney, a Flagler Beach City Commission member who spoke at the county commission meeting as a member of the public, said she’d initially considered banning medical marijuana facilities in Flagler Beach. But the Flagler Beach City Commission — like Palm Coast’s City Council — decided not to.
Carney said she had voted against the state amendment to allow medical marijuana.
“I don’t like this. I don’t like them being called treatment centers. ... There’s no treatment here; they’re dispensing."
— Charlie Ericksen, county commissioner
But now that it's passed, she said, “If we all ban it, we felt — I felt — it was going to get worse. … “You have citizens that have medical rights. This is a medical substance: It is not grass, it is not weed, it is grown totally differently … Those citizens that we serve need this program. I would hope that somebody had a choice between an opiate and medical marijauana,” she said. — and that they wouldn’t t have to travel excessively to get it. “Our citizens deserve choice, and our citizens deserve free access," she added.
Another Flagler Beach City Commissioner, Jane Mealy, told county commissioners to remember that the kind of marijuana they’d be banning is a medication, not a street drug.
“There is a big difference between this marijuana that’s going be for medical purposes and the stuff you grew up with the the ‘60s,” she said. “It’s low THC; you can’t get addicted to it.”
Two residents — Jane Gentile-Youd and Joanne Updegrave, had concerns.
Gentile-Youd pointed out that because of federal anti-marijuana laws, banks won’t do business with medical marijuana facilities, which are therefore forced to deal exclusively in cash — inviting criminals to try to steal it. She recommended commissioners table the issue temporarily.
Joanne Updegrave, chairwoman of the Flagler County Republican Executive Committee, acknowledged that there are people who need medical marjiana, but asked if the county might be able to impose certain restrictions on the facilities, such as restricting their operating hours.
And, she said, “If the people who do need it are getting it now … could they not continue? Why do we have to bring it here in Flagler?”
“Why should you force your citizens to have to drive down to Volusia, or St. Johns or somewhere else?” Palm Coast resident George Mayo countered. “That’s not right.”
When his own brother in-and law was dying, Mayo told the commission, the doctors at the Department of Veterans Affairs gave the the brother-in-law opioids because they couldn’t prescribe the medical marijauna they would have preferred to use; one of them, Mayo said, told his brother-in-law, “We’d love to give this to you, but we can’t.”
With medical marijuana, Mayo said, “Thinking you’re going to get high like high-THC marijuana is like saying, ‘I think I’m going to get a buzz on tonight, so I’m going to get a six-pack of O’Douls ((non-alcoholic beer).’ Well, that’s not going to happen.”
Sheriff’s Office Chief Mark Strobridge, speaking on behalf of Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly, said Staly does not want to impede anyone from having access to medical treatment, but that he has some concerns about the security risks posed by all-cash businesses.
"Sheriff Staly’s only caution is that when we consider the ordinance and consider the type of building, is that you have a component of high security in these things, both internally and externally,” Strobridge said.
The issue came back up to the commission for discussion.
McLaughlin spoke first, saying that “the people have spoken, in an overwhelming majority”: 71% of Florida voters had supported the state’s medical marijuana amendment. The country as a whole is speaking on the issue of medical marijuana, he said, by increasingly allowing it.
“I myself don’t want to stand between a doctor and a patient on any issue, “ McLaughlin said. “Those are private matters. I think that the people have recognized that, and they’ve expressed that in their vote. I think it's my obligation to honor that.”
McLaughlin said that he personally doesn’t even drink alcohol. But, he said of medical marijuana, “Across the board, I think it is coming. Flagler Beach has stated it very well: It’s coming. We want to get on the front end of it. We have an opportunity here to help steer that train; I think there’s wisdom in that. Sitting back and being on the caboose, you go where the train takes you. If you jump in on the engine, you get the chance to steer. … I’d rather be on the engine, at least have a shot at it. I think there are people who can benefit from this.”
McLaughlin said he’s had relatives who have struggled with pain. They'd ben prescribed some “really terrible drugs that I’ve seen used, abused; I’ve seen marijuana used and abused. I’ve seen alcohol — probably the most abused substance on the planet," he said. "But with that, I wouldn’t stand in the way of somebody’s use of any of these items, and I’m not going to stand in the way of this. I think it's important that we — as Mr. Mayo said — that we have citizens here who want to use that, and I’m not going to make them leave the county to get their medicine, of any kind. Whether it’s aspirin or medical marijuana, I can’t be of clear conscience and do that.”
Sullivan motioned to ban medical marijuana facilities in the county's unincorporated areas. Hansen seconded. Sullivan's proposal to ban medical marijuana facilities failed 3-2, with McLaughlin, Ericksen and O’Brien voting against the ban.
Hansen motioned to send the issue back to county staff to consider modifying the county’s code of ordinance to regulate where pharmacies — and thereby medical marijuana facilities — could be placed. It passed unanimously.