Commissioner Nate McLaughlin voted against the ban, saying that to ban the facilities outright would be to 'move violently against the will of the people.'
Most county residents who spoke at a Dec. 18 County Commission meeting to support a ban on medical marijuana dispensaries in the county's unincorporated areas said they weren't opponents of medical marijuana, per se — some had even voted for it in the last election.
But they didn't want an ordinance that could allow it near their homes in Plantation Bay.
Opponents of the ban who who spoke at the same meeting said that medical marijuana had helped them or their friends and loved ones deal with serious illnesses, and that locals who need it and are already ill shouldn't be presented with an additional barrier in the form of a longer drive to get it. And, they repeatedly said, 71% of Floridians and 75% of Flagler County voters had voted in favor of medical marijuana in the last election.
The County Commission listened to residents on both sides of the issue, then voted 3-1, with Commissioner Nate McLaughlin dissenting, to ban medical marijuana dispensaries in the county's unincorporated areas. Commissioner Donald O'Brien, who had voted previously in favor of allowing medical marijuana dispensaries, was absent for the meeting. The vote won't affect Palm Coast and Flagler Beach, which have decided to allow dispensaries in their city limits.
"The ban, for me, is contrary to the voice of the people. ... I don’t use marijuana; I never have. I don’t drink; I never have. But yet I’m willing to make sure that people get what they want. They want an ABC liquor store; they get one. They want a tattoo shop; they get one. I don’t use either of them. I’m not advocating the use of marijauna, nor would I ever. But what I am advocating is that the people have asked us to move forward."
NATE McLAUGHLIN, county commisisoner
Before the vote, New Port Richey resident Patricia Freitag, 57, told county commissioners that she had been taking 33 pills a day before she started medical marijuana. Now she takes one.
"The quality of my life has gone up by 500%," she said. "I have done more in the last six months than I've done in the last 15 years. ... Access is important for older people." If she lived in Flagler, she said, she'd have to pay $40 in shipping costs to access medical marijuana unless she ordered large amounts at once, which is cost prohibitive.
She held up a vial of medical marijuana to show the commission what it looked like. "We’re not talking pot, we’re not talking bud, we’re not talking plant. We are talking an extract that is ... processed under highly controlled conditions," she said.
The dispensaries she was familiar with, she said, had guards in the parking lot and didn't allow people to enter without a valid medical marijauana card.
"Medicinal cannabis has been a godsend for me, and I will fight until I die to make sure that everybody who has a need for this stuff gets it," she said.
"Where are those people who need medical marijuana? Very few in unincorporated areas. Most needed accessibility would be in city areas. ... Not that medical marijuana is wrong, it just should be in the cities where there is policing, where there is constant patrolling to look out for it, to look out for the safety of individuals."
CYNTHIA KELLEY, Plantation Bay resident
The county had found itself limited when it considered how to allow medical marijuana facilities: By state law, if a county decides to allow medical marijuana facilities at all, they would have to be allowed wherever pharmacies are allowed.
County Commissioner David Sullivan had suggested in earlier meetings that the county add a buffer requirement that would bar dispensaries within 500 feet of homes.
But that would also limit pharmacies and could lead to legal issues, county staff said: It would be safer to simply ban them outright. And doing so wouldn't mean that county residents couldn't access medical marijuana at all, since the ban would not affect Palm Coast and Flagler Beach.
Plantation Bay resident Cynthia Kelly said that since residents who need medical marijuana will still be able to get it in Palm Coast or Flagler Beach, there's no reason to allow it in unincorporated areas as well.
"Where are those people who need medical marijuana? Very few in unincorporated areas," she said. "Most needed accessibility would be in city areas. ... I am a resident, a taxpayer and a voter in Flagler County. My home is in an area which could be affected by a zoning change if it happened."
She said placing dispensaries near communities could create a risk of robberies or burglaries.
"Not that medical marijuana is wrong, it just should be in the cities where there is policing, where there is constant patrolling to look out for it, to look out for the safety of individuals," she said.
Another Plantation Bay resident said he'd voted for medical marijuana when it was on the ballot but opposed a formerly proposed ordinance that would have allowed medical marijuana dispensaries without a special buffer, meaning they could be placed as closed as 50 feet from residences.
Palm Coast resident Rick Schultz said that medical marijuana could aid people with PTSD. He said his own son, an officer who'd served for more than 18 years in the military, had done 14 tours in Iraq.
"He said, 'Dad, I killed women and children. I killed kids younger than my son.' He said, 'How am I supposed to live with that the rest of my life?' PTSD is strong. It kills these kids. These kids coming back from the service — we don't know what they're going through. How can you kill somebody younger than your own son? They need this stuff."
Ken Bauer, 52, said he'd never used marijuana. "But I've bought it twice in any life," he said. "Once was when my father was dying of cancer, and once was when a very good friend of mine was dying of cancer. They couldn't just jump in a car and drive to Palm Coast or Flagler Beach. I had to get it because they didn't have access to it; they couldn't have gotten it themselves. ... "There's a lot of people out there that can use this. And the convenience of you people who don't want it in your backyard is their inconvenience."
Commissioner Charlie Ericksen was not convinced that medical marijuana was safe and properly tested, comparing it to thalidomide, which caused deformities in infants when it was taken by their pregnant mothers to relieve morning sickness in the '50s and '60s. He said THC rates in marijuana were reported to be rising.
"Who will test this? There is no USDA pharmacist that tests for this," he said. "There is a good chance that some of the raw product will be contaminated. Who will test this regularly? The same people who are dispensing it for profit. They are not pharmacists with a degree. ... I don't think there's enough information out there — and the USDA has not even recognized this as a medicine. If I saw more firm facts instead of the things we've heard tonight and maybe some of the things I'm using as a referenced here were confirmed, I'd be more open to doing this."
Commissioner Nate McLaughlin said he didn't know the details of the science behind medical marijuana.
"Yet we just made a vote — the people of this state and this county — that we’re willing to move forward with this item, and the Legislature has taken upon itself to ensure, through legislation, its proper usage, its proper growth, its proper care, its proper dispensary," he said. "There’s a lot of herbs out there that people use for medical purposes — a lot of them — that are unregulated by USDA."
Much of the discussion about the ban, he said, had less to do with the value of medical marijuana itself than with land use issues and proximity to homes. Those are "worthy discussions," he said, but they should be had after someone applies to build a facility. Then county staff would go through the county's land development code to see whether the proposed location would be workable or not.
"The ban, for me, is contrary to the voice of the people," he said. "I don’t use marijuana; I never have. I don’t drink; I never have. But yet I’m willing to make sure that people get what they want. They want an ABC liquor store; they get one. They want a tattoo shop; they get one. I don’t use either of them. I’m not advocating the use of marijauna, nor would I ever. But what I am advocating is that the people have asked us to move forward. ... I have a moral question for myself to say, ‘Sorry folks, I know you overwhelmingly voted for this, but tough luck.’ I can’t do that. ... An outright ban is, in my mind, for me, to move violently against the will of the people."
Commissioner David Sullivan pointed out that, so far, there's been no indication that anyone would have any interest in placing a dispensary in unincorporated Flagler County, which doesn't even have a pharmacy.
"We're walking a little bit of a tightrope here," he said. "But my feeling is, at this point in time, in this county, given our population, that one or two or three medical marijuana distribution locations in the city of Palm Coast — which has 80,000 of our 110,000 people — and Flagler Beach ... is where we are. ... I think we are providing enough ability to those who actually need the marijuana for medical reasons to have access to it in Flagler County."
The commission will have to vote on the ban a second time for it to become final. The second vote will happen at a County Commission meeting after the holidays.