GREEN COVE SPRINGS – After more than a year of research, discussion and soul searching, Clay County commissioners voted Tuesday to allow medical marijuana facilities in the unincorporated areas of the county as a conditional use.
The vote was split at 3-2. Vice Chairman Mike Cella and Commissioners Wayne Bolla and Gayward Hendry voted for the measure. Chairman Gavin Rollins and Commissioner Diane Hutchings voted against it.
The ordinance passed at the Jan. 23 meeting deals only with the unincorporated areas of the county and the Land Development Code regulations that are in effect there.
The conditional uses that apply to the ordinance include requiring medical marijuana treatment center dispensing facilities be allowed in any zoning area that allows for pharmacies. The facilities would not be allowed within 500 feet of a school and could only be open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Signage is also addressed under the conditional use and requires that no sign may be visible from the street or any public place except for a sign that is fixed to the outside or hanging in the window of the facility. Any approved trade name or logo used on the sign “may not contain wording or images commonly associated with marketing targeted toward children or which promote recreational use of marijuana.”
Commissioners have been struggling with the issue since the fall of 2016, when the issue first appeared on state ballots in the November general election. State voters passed what is known as Amendment 2, which expands the availability and use of medical marijuana in Florida. Clay County was with the overwhelming number of state voters who voted for the amendment, with 70.6 percent of county voters approving it.
But because the state still had to work out a framework of rules and regulations for the facilities, many cities and counties, including Clay, decided to issue a temporary moratorium because they couldn’t really structure their own regulations without knowing what the state was going to do.
Clay County’s temporary moratorium was approved Jan. 24, 2017, and was to expire January 24, 2018. To help them deal with the situation, and after several discussions on it, commissioners eventually directed the staff to prepare two ordinances so they could make a decision.
The first ordinance was the one that passed and dealt with conditional uses, while the second ordinance would have kept in place a moratorium on all medical marijuana facilities – essentially a ban – that would have sunset in 24 months. The extended moratorium would have allowed commissioners to see how other counties were handling the situation and how their decisions were working.
But the conditional use ordinance won out, with those commissioners who voted for it basically saying one of the main reasons they were voting for it was because county voters had voted to approve the medical marijuana issue in 2016.
Referring to the large percentage of the Clay County voters who voted for item on the 2016 ballot, Bolla said, “Seven out of 10 people I know said go ahead and approve it, so that’s where I’m coming from.”
Hendry and Cella also mentioned the voters’ approval in their decisions.
Although Cella said he had personally voted against medical marijuana twice and would vote no again if presented with the subject. He said he had to follow his constituents’ lead, even though he had not heard from any of them.
“To be honest, I’ve not received one call, one email, one text, one way or the other about approving or banning medical marijuana from the county,” he said. “So in absence of that and feeling that it’s my job to represent my constituents, I can only move forward with the way that they voted with a clear voice in November 2016, which is 70.6 percent here in Clay County in favor of selling medical marijuana.”
Cella also said he believed the biggest fear people have – and he said he had to “engage” them in conversation to get their remarks – is that they feel it would be an “entrée” for recreational marijuana.
But Cella said he doesn’t believe that would happen, especially since he said most people don’t realize there is “no euphoria” with medical marijuana, and he would fight “with full vigor” against any such measure that would try to introduce recreational marijuana in the state or the county.
Cella also said he wished the state would have given them some better options. The state basically gave three options: a ban, providing for facilities where pharmacies are currently zoned or revise the zoning regulations to provide new or revised locations for pharmacies and the medical marijuana facilities.
“I know all of us in our own way have struggled with the decision on this because the state didn’t give us much wiggle room and didn’t give us any opportunity to try to frame it the way that we would want it to be here in Clay County,” he said. “But at this point we had two choices and we’re going to pick from what we think is the best amongst those two.”
Cella also said he believed there might not be much of a demand for people wanting to set up medical marijuana facilities in Clay County because “we don’t have a lot of patients in the county at this time.”
Hendry said he agreed with all Cella said, but Hutchings and Rollins had different views.
Hutchings said she supported the idea of making medical marijuana available to “folks who have health reasons” for it, but she believed voters were voting for access, not necessarily medical marijuana facilities in Clay County.
“I’ve said before what voters wanted was access,” she said.
There are other such companies available, and in Clay County, Orange Park has voted to allow medical marijuana facilities within its boundaries.
Hutchings said she feared recreational marijuana entering the county.
“I personally am still supportive of a ban because I know there’s more coming and I’m not ready to open the door on recreational (marijuana). Even the folks in this industry have told me that’s where we’re headed,” she said. “So because access is not a problem, I’m still in support of a ban.”
Hutchings also said she thought state Sen. Rob Bradley(R-Fleming Island), who played a big role in the state’s legislation, had done “a great job” and called the legislation “brilliant.”
Rollins said the decision was not an easy or simple or clear one. Rollins, as did Hutchings, said he viewed the issue basically as a zoning one, and agreed people had voted for access. He also mentioned he certainly understood the emotional side of the issue because he has two family members who have “suffered from cancer” and would be eligible for medical marijuana.
“There’s a lot of unknowns and I think given the fact that on the one hand the citizens have access, and on the other hand, given the unknowns of what zoning would look like, I would be in favor of a ban,” he said.