OKALOOSA COUNTY – Last November, 71 percent of voters in Okaloosa County and the rest of Florida approved Amendment 2 to expand the use of medical marijuana.

The amendment expanded legislation that already permitted more limited medical cannabis, and it also called for the state Department of Health to regulate medical marijuana growers and dispensaries.

But on June 9, the last day of the state Legislature’s three-day special session, state lawmakers approved a medical marijuana bill that includes a provision that gives cities and counties the ability to ban such dispensaries within their jurisdictions.

While the bill still needs Gov. Rick Scott’s signature to become law, at least two Okaloosa County commissioners say they wouldn't agree to ban dispensaries in the county's unincorporated areas.

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Local control

State Rep. Mel Ponder, R-Destin, voted “yes” on the proposed bill. He said the provision on possible bans of dispensaries provides local jurisdictional control.

“I thought it empowered local cities sand counties to allow (dispensaries) in, or to just say ‘We won’t allow them’, ” Ponder said Friday. “I’m fine with that. It’s good to empower our cities and counties to do what’s best for them and keep the state out of it. It’s a local choice.”

After being asked if potential bans on dispensaries equate to ignoring the will of the people, Ponder replied: “Some could possibly say that. But the 71 percent (rate of voter approval) was to give greater access to medical marijuana, and as a state, we’re honoring that.”

He noted that Florida currently has seven state-licensed medical marijuana growers, and “there will be more opportunity (to access medical pot) than there was initially.”

Florida Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park, introduced the bill that included the provision to allow local governments to ban dispensaries.

"Local communities asked the Legislature to respect their home rule powers and give them the opportunity to pass ordinances consistent with their community standards," Bradley said in an email. "We honored their request" by including the provision.

He said he opposes any ban on dispensaries by his local government and, "If a local elected official ignores the will of the voters, I trust that the voters will take care of the situation during the next election cycle."

The Okaloosa County Commission on Tuesday anticipates receiving an update on a possible ordinance that would regulate potential medical marijuana dispensaries and treatment centers in the unincorporated areas.

Because of the pending state legislation, county staff has had to rework much of the initial version of the ordinance. Commissioners on Tuesday plan to conduct the second public hearing on the ordinance but might not vote on whether to approve it until their July 11 meeting.

The county's moratorium on the permitting of medical cannabis dispensaries expires July 17. A majority of the commission in January approved the 180-day moratorium to allow time to create county rules on medical marijuana facilities.

'A strong majority'

District 4 Commissioner Trey Goodwin said while he voted “no” on Amendment 2, he honors the will of the voters who approved it.

“The voters in Okaloosa County said this is a good idea,” Goodwin said. “That’s why I opposed a moratorium in the first place. I would vote against a ban on dispensaries in Okaloosa County. I just view it as contrary to what the citizens said and the direction they want us to go. And I’m not going to ignore them.”

District 3 Commissioner Nathan Boyles shared similar thoughts.

“I don’t favor a local ban,” he said. “I appreciate the Legislature providing us with that authority; it’s somewhat unusual. But I think a strong majority of our citizens spoke when the amendment was adopted.”

Among other restrictions, the county’s potential ordinance could prohibit dispensaries/treatment centers from being set up within 500 feet of any existing public or private school in unincorporated or incorporated parts of the county. Hours of operation of dispensaries/treatment centers could be from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, and prohibitions could be implemented on on-site consumption and drive-through or mobile vending of medical marijuana.

In addition, the sale of state-licensed medical marijuana could be the only activity allowed at a medical marijuana establishment.

“It’s not like you can sell medical marijuana along with tie-dye T-shirts and paraphernalia,“ county Growth Management Director Elliot Kampert said during the first public hearing on the ordinance June 6. "We’re not talking head shops here.”

Because of conflicts with the pending state legislation, county staff has removed a portion of the ordinance that called for a $2,500 nonrefundable dispensary/treatment center application fee and a $5,000 annual operating fee.

County officials earlier had said money from the fees would have paid for the monitoring of dispensaries and treatment centers to make sure they were following county rules.

In addition to preventing the establishment of such facilities too close to schools, the initial version of the ordinance had called for prohibiting dispensaries and treatment centers from within 500 feet of a church or public or private park.

But because of the pending state rules, medical marijuana facilities would be allowed in the county's neighborhood commercial, general commercial and mixed-use zoning districts "without regard to the proximity of parks or churches," according to county information.