Southaven residents concerned about medical marijuana zoning plans

After the Southaven Board of Alderman voted April 19 to opt out of Mississippi’s new medical marijuana program — with a plan to re-enroll once they could zone in to have all potential dispensaries co-located — a group of residents got up and left, gathering outside to discuss what happened.

“I have been legally in the cannabis business in Colorado for five years,” said Doug Stout, chief operating officer at Mississippi Health Consultants, during the impromptu meeting. “My last dispensary was literally tucked away in a neighborhood in Denver. There was no problem, there was no problem. We never encountered these things.”

Governor Tate Reeves signed a bill legalizing medical marijuana in Mississippi in early February. The legislation allows patients to purchase up to 3 ounces of marijuana per month and is designed for use by people with debilitating diseases such as cancer, AIDS and sickle cell disease.

Cities and counties across the state have until early May, 90 days after the bill is signed, to vote on whether they want to allow certain medical marijuana-related businesses to operate in their communities. If they decide no, they can always re-register at any time.

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City leaders have expressed concern that the law does not allow them to zone more specifically than it explicitly states, which is that dispensaries must be at least 1,500 feet from each other and 1,000 feet of a school, church or daycare center.

On Friday, towns in DeSoto County received a notice from the state attorney general on the matter. According to Southaven Mayor Darren Musselwhite, the notice not only makes it clear that towns are allowed to be more precise in the zoning of dispensaries in commercial areas, but that towns must also have a comprehensive zoning plan in place before to register there.

Melvin Robinson, director of communications for the Mississippi Trade Association, is one of the activists unsure of the need for AG notice, saying they believe the law has always stated that cities are allowed to zone in for dispensaries. But they also point to the passage that cities and counties are not permitted to “prohibit dispensaries either expressly or by the enactment of ordinances or regulations which render their operation impracticable within the jurisdiction.”

“I haven’t seen or read the AG’s opinion,” Robinson said. “But in terms of zoning information, there’s zoning information that says municipalities would have zoning power in the bill, but it can’t be discriminatory because it’s a facility cannabis.”

At the April 19 meeting, Musselwhite, who highlighted his support for medical marijuana in Southaven, proposed the creation of a special commercial medical zone near Baptist Memorial Hospital-DeSoto, allowing dispensaries to be zoned specifically to close to doctors’ offices.

“What I can say is you don’t limit Walgreens, you don’t limit Rite Aid, you don’t limit CVS, they’re pharmacies, they sell drugs, but they’re not limited to a medical district “, says Stout. “It seems odd to me that you would take that position on something that you consider medicine all the same.”

Southaven’s planning director, Whitney Choat-Cook, expects zoning can be completed within 90 days, meaning Southaven could return by the end of the summer with the requirements of stricter zoning in place.

Voters have the opportunity to request a special election by collecting petition signatures from 1,500 registered voters. Stout and others believe that if they can get the signatures on the city clerk’s desk, they can force a vote on the issue without the zoning requirements attached.

After speaking with the city attorney, Southaven City Clerk Andrea Mullen said via email that the city has the power “to zone all potential dispensaries for inclusion in the medical district, regardless of the vote of the residents or the city council to register for it.”

Stout and other residents worry that the strict zoning of dispensaries will limit opportunities for small businesses to open in the city. There are also concerns that forcing residents to drive into a small part of town, or towns like Olive Branch, which opted in on April 19, will keep patients who need medical marijuana out of the obtain.

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Andrew Durham, a disabled veteran, spoke at the April 19 meeting. Durham does not want to drive to other cities to obtain medical marijuana and is concerned that some patients may not be able to make the trip.

“Why should we drive to the next town?” said Durham. “We don’t have to drive to the next town to buy booze. We don’t have to drive to the next town for pharmaceutical needs. They smuggle medical marijuana like a boogeyman , and it’s nothing but a store. A safe store. And it won’t bring any crime. Crime is illegal, not legal.

Having accessible medical marijuana could be life changing for Durham and other disabled veterans, he said.

“Medical marijuana could take a boatload of pills away from me,” Durham said. “A shipment of pharmaceutical pills and save my kidneys and my liver. Medical marijuana could get rid of opioids, these psychotic drugs that I take to keep me from waking up at night. I have to go to bed at night and I have to do a choice, do I take a sleeping pill or do I take a painkiller, because I don’t mix the two and tossing and turning all night in pain If I take the pain pill, I I’m up all night, I can’t sleep.

Despite the uncertainty over what will happen next to medical marijuana in Southaven, Durham said just introducing it here in the first place is a good thing, at least for veterans.

“Anything positive will work for veterans,” Durham said. “We’re resourceful, we survive. We’ll get whatever we need wherever we can get it. It’s about other people. Thank God I have resources to help me do what I have to do. ”

Gina Butkovich covers DeSoto County, storytelling and general news. She can be reached at 901-232-6714 or on Twitter @gigibutko.

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