Anyone who wanted to get a sense of how different—how more progressive and almost but not quite yet daring—this Palm Coast City Council is compared to its predecessors need only have gotten a whiff of the council’s 25-minute discussion on medical marijuana Tuesday.
Two weeks ago Flagler County government eagerly and uncritically adopted a six-month block on permitting any kind of medical marijuana dispensary in unincorporated Flagler. The Palm Coast City Council looks set to do the same, and for nine months. But it is doing so with more reluctance and more thought to positioning Palm Coast to be a pioneer rather than a laggard in the potentially lucrative business of medical marijuana, with council members and even the city manager suggesting they would not be opposed to having medical pot dispensed at a pharmacy like any other pain killer.
Tuesday’s discussion of the city council, in a workshop—the ratification of the proposed moratorium will take place at a meeting next week—was revealing not for what the council is willing to ban for the next nine months, as it waits on state regulation, but for what it appears willing to allow once the legal landscape surrounding the legalization of medical marijuana becomes clearer. This council does not seem interested in draconian or discriminating regulation against medical pot, seeing it more for its purported humane capabilities as a painkiller and its unquestioned potential as an economic engine.
Mayor Milissa Holland and council member Nick Klufas, for example, are eager to tap into the economic potential of the legalized drug. Council member Bob Cuff doesn’t want Palm Coast to just “sit on our hands,” waiting for the state to hand down its edicts—and he especially does not want regulation to turn into an end run around voter intent. Voters approved the legalization of medical pot with a margin exceeding 71 percent in November.
“If we’re six months ahead of the game, before anyone else is, aren’t we bringing money into the city?”
Council member Heidi Shipley did not weigh in much during the discussion, but when she did, she wanted to ensure that existing allowances for medical pot, such as valid doctors’ prescriptions, would not be impeded in Palm Coast despite the moratorium. City Manager Jim Landon, who twice said he could not understand why the stuff couldn’t just be handed out at pharmacies, assured her it would not. “Wherever you can buy medical marijuana today you’ll be able to continue to do that here in Palm Coast. Our goal is to keep status quo,” Landon said.
Steven Nobile was absent. He is the only council member who has spoken adamantly against a proposal to de-criminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, but he has not spoken about medical pot.
“If we’re six months ahead of the game, before anyone else is, aren’t we bringing money into the city?” Klufas asked.
“There is a lot of money to be made, without question,” Holland said. “This could be a very prosperous economic opportunity. I am more concerned that the state will just swipe it and take it and then tell us you will do as we say, which they normally do. But I think we have to be part of this process.”
So why the block on any applicants who may want to open a dispensary?
The answer, Landon and City Attorney Bill Reischmann said, has nothing to do with judgments about medical pot, but about not putting the city in an untenable position, should it devise regulations now that could contradict what the Legislature hands down in the next few months.
“It’s something the state Legislature will have to do,” Landon said, “and once they work out some of the framework then it’s time for local governments to address. But we don’t anticipate that until this summer, so the concept is that until we know what we’re dealing with at the state level, it’s not good for us to try to address it at all.”
That’s what Landon said at the beginning of the discussion. Perhaps he did not expect the turn the discussion took with its new members. But Landon is nothing if not shrewdly adaptable. As is often the case with him, he modulated his tune considerably after hearing where the council members were, revising his nine-month clock to something much different by the end of the 25-minute discussion: “This is not a 270 days, then we start our process,” he said, trying to reassure Cuff and Klufas. “This is saying that within 270 days, we would have an ordinance adopted, and in that process locally it takes months. So this isn’t wait 270 days to get started. We need to get started now.”
Both Klufas and Cuff had also spoken of numerous other models across the country Palm Coast could mirror: the city would not be reinventing anything.
“My biggest fear is that the Legislature will attempt to basically repeal the referendum’s approval for this kind of use by adopting regulations on the industry that will wind up in court for the next five years while local governments are left—pardon the expression—holding the bag to wrestle with these kind of issues,” Cuff said, later specifying: “I hate to see us just sit on our hands for nine months, waiting for Tallahassee to come up, you know, for the two stone tablets to come down from Tallahassee that’s going to explain all of this to us, and then get a flood of applicants for this type of land use.”
There are many states “where this has been pretty much vetted out,” Klufas said. “Don’t we have the opportunity here to really plan where we want to put it so that we can be on the forefront of deciding where we want to go with this instead of sitting in the back seat?”
He never got a clear answer, other than a reiteration of the proposed moratorium and the concern that Palm Coast could be at odds with state rules, if it adopted its own right now—though that remains an option: Reischmann, the city attorney, said the moratorium doesn’t stop the council from writing rules whenever it chooses to within that nine-month window, as Landon himself would later specify.
And what rules are being considered would be focused on land regulations, not much else.
“If somebody comes to us right now, Councilman Klufas, and says we want to open up one of those treatment centers in the city of Palm Coast,” Reischmann said, “we don’t have anything in the Land Development Code that says this is where a medical marijuana treatment center goes. We’re going to have to just work on this with what we’ve got, and that may not work out for the people that are already next to, that live, or that have a business next to that empty or that empty store space or something like that. That’s a potential problem of option Number One, which is to do nothing. Option Number Two is to adopt some land use regulations right now. I wouldn’t know how to create land use regulations because we don’t know what ultimately is going to come from the state of Florida.”
Holland said the legislative process over the issue will be “a little war,” as the Legislature, she noted, is largely opposed to the legalization of medical marijuana.
There could be a “little war” on the council, too, and it may not all be visible: previous councils were notorious for presenting slightly more questioning faces during workshop discussions–or in conversations with constituents–only to retreat to more conservative measures once translated into ordinances and regulations. The translating was largely the work of the administration, which has always tightly framed the scope of options–by defining options ahead of time, as it did with the nine-month moratorium rather than six, for example. Tuesday, council members challenged those options somewhat, without as yet challenging the method through which they were presented.