DeSoto County took no official action regarding medical cannabis, but likely will join Hernando and Olive Branch and opt-in to the law.
The Board of County Supervisors reconvened Monday morning to discuss the law and to hear from the public, but adjourned until their next meeting on May 2 without taking any action.
Cities and counties have until May 2 to opt-out of the law. If they take no action on May 2, DeSoto County will automatically opt-in.
District 2 Supervisor Mark Gardner said he does not favor the county opting-out because voters in DeSoto County voted overwhelmingly in favor of allowing medical marijuana.
“I feel like the people have decided this issue and we are here to be representatives of the people,” Gardner said.
District 3 Supervisor Ray Denison said the county still has a lot of questions regarding how it will regulate medical cannabis as far as its land use, but agreed that they need to follow the will of the people.
“I too, like Mark, believe we ought to do what the people voted for,” Denison said. “In this case, it was well over a majority. I think we still have a lot of work to do to iron out the details. There are so many questions and there are so many opinions.”
Most of the discussion centered around zoning and where medical cannabis dispensaries, testing, and growing facilities will be allowed to operate under the county’s zoning laws.
District 1 Supervisor Jessie Medlin questioned whether dispensaries will be allowed in the county’s AR or agricultural residential zones and if they would be subject to regulations of any homeowners associations.
“We have requirements for how our homes can be built and setbacks and homeowners associations have regulations in their subdivisions,” Medlin said. “Just wondered how that would be handled.”
County Attorney Tony Nowak said a recent opinion by Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch in response to questions from Southaven stated that the law does give cities the authority to regulate dispensaries in commercial zones.
“From what the AG has recently opined, as long as there is a rational basis for the decision, you can make sure that your zoning regulations do apply for a medical marijuana operation,” Nowak said. “You have to update your zoning regs to account for medical marijuana, or as some cities are going to adopt a certain set of medical marijuana regulations to make it a part of the zoning process.”
District 4 Supervisor Lee Caldwell asked if the county had to amend its zoning regulations to accommodate medical marijuana by the May 2 deadline.
“Is this the only date to do that?” Caldwell said. “Or can we do them later?”
Nowak said although the medical marijuana law goes into effect on May 2, the Mississippi Department of Health won’t be issuing licenses until June 2 for growing operations and July 2 for dispensaries, so the county will have time to amend its zoning.
“If you do nothing, there are still several months and we can look at zoning at that time,” Nowak said. “Your zoning regulations can be updated at any point.”
Gardner pointed out that the fees for opening a dispensary or growing facility are quite high and will limit the number of people applying for permits. The licensing fee for a 2,000 square foot growing facility is $15,000 and $150,000 for 10,000 square feet or more. The cost for a dispensary license is $25,000 and $15,000 for a testing facility.
“The fees that the state have set are pretty strong,” Gardner said. “It’s going to keep some people out of business.”
Daniel Dunlap, an Alcoholic Beverage Control enforcement officer, said in response to a question from Caldwell that the state will not license any dispensaries until they have appeared before a local government board and gone through all of the permit, licensing, and zoning procedures.
“They have to have that in hand before they submit (a license) for a dispensary,” Dunlap said.
Dunlap said there is no average size needed for a dispensary and that many will locate in strip malls or near convenience stores.
“You will have a situation where there are empty bays next to convenience stores,” Dunlap said. “That’s where a lot of them will be.”
Medlin asked whether dispensaries will have to get a variance from the local board if they are closer to the 1,000 foot setback requirement from a church, daycare or school.
“Does that mean they can sign a letter that they aren’t against it?” Medlin said.
Nowak said a church, school and daycare can sign a waiver that they aren’t opposed to a dispensary, but the request will still need to go through the local approval process.
“That school or church that might be impacted can agree to reduce that,” Nowak said. “The board can’t do that on its own. If a testing facility was to be 750 feet from a school, that would be contrary to the law. But if they signed a letter that they had no problem with the 750 feet, then the board can decide and allow that.”
No one from the public spoke in favor of opting-out, but there were a handful of residents who urged the county to opt-in.
Kelly Jacobs, a medical marijuana proponent, encouraged the county to follow the will of the people.
“More than 50,000 voters in DeSoto County voted in favor of Initiative 65,” Jacobs said.
Amy Smoot, a patient advocate from Olive Branch, said medical cannabis will help many people in DeSoto County who suffer from seizures, cancer, chronic pain and PTSD.
“I have many pediatric patients from all over the county,” Smoot said. “One of my patients has over 100 seizures a day. She’s two. Can you imagine packing her up and driving her to a dispensary in another county? I have a pediatric cancer patient who spends all day vomiting due to chemotherapy. Should his parents have to pack him up and drive him out of the county for medicine?”
Smoot said state lawmakers spent over a year working on the bill to get it right.
“I challenge you to recall any bill in our state’s history that’s had this much input, time and scrutiny,” Smoot said. “We did not come this far and fight this hard for our special needs parents to have to pack up their seizing children and drive out of the county for medical issues. We did not vote for that.”
Steven Brown told the board that he wants to open a 1,000 square foot micro-growing facility on 1.7 acres and that it will be a highly regulated business.
“This is medical grade,” Brown said. “It has to meet certain standards. You’re not going to get a trailer and throw it out there and grow it.”
He urged the board not to delay past May 2 in order to let small growers like him get their foot in the door first before big out of state growers come to DeSoto County.
“I want to get in on this business before the big money comes in,” Brown said.
Board President and District 5 Supervisor Michael Lee said the issue isn’t about the county making money from the taxes on marijuana. The board emphasized that they want to make sure that it is zoned in the proper areas and that they are looking out for the public’s best interest.
“I’ve heard a lot of people talk about money and how much money the county is going to get,” Lee said. “It’s not about the money. It’s all about helping people.”.