By TED CARTER
“Shop local” is Main Street America’s slogan, but the prized-retail messaging does not include DeSoto countians permitted to buy and use the county’s newest cash crop—medical marijuana.
That’s the rule Columbia Care Services Florida LLC will be operating under as the $1.3 billion national cannabis producer and distributor begins ramping up a Florida operation based just south of Arcadia on U.S. Highway 17. Columbia Care Services recently won approval from the DeSoto Board of County Commissioners to expand greenhouse space to around 75,000 square feet and warehouse space by 21,000 square feet.
DeSoto commissioners welcome the jobs and economic activity the medical marijuana operation brings as Columbia Care moves toward its initial goal of opening dozens of dispensaries across Florida.
But commissioners haven’t yet embraced the products Columbia makes, at least when it comes to letting them be sold in the county.
Nor has Arcadia’s city council.
DeSoto County is an unlikely location for a dispensary. Columbia and other companies in Florida’s emerging medical cannabis sector look for rooftops and major job centers. “To date, the dispensaries have not shown an interest in relocating to DeSoto County,” said Tara Poulton, projects director for DeSoto County, in an email.
Both DeSoto County and the city of Arcadia joined localities around the state that pulled back the welcome mat to medical weed dispensaries after more than 70 percent of Florida voters approved full-strength medical marijuana in November 2016. Communities such as North Port, Sarasota and Fort Myers are outliers allowing medical pot shops to operate.
DeSoto County’s ordinance prohibiting dispensaries, adopted in September 2017, specifies that without a total ban in place, it could not regulate dispensary numbers at all. Its only jurisdiction is in where the shops go, and even that must be done within state rules on pot dispensaries. Arcadia has approved a similar measure.
“If they do not ban such facilities,” the ordinance reads, “local governments cannot place specific limits on the number of dispensing facilities that may be located in their jurisdiction.”
But they could erase the ban in recognition of the place the county may soon occupy on the cannabis sector map.
Don’t look for something like that anytime soon, however, DeSoto commissioner Elton Langford said. “As far as I know, nothing has changed.”
Langford, representing District 4, added that he thinks the prohibition will stay in place until either more state guidelines are set or the county gets authority to set its own guidelines on where dispensary stores will be placed. “This was pretty much the consensus” of commissioners, Langford noted.
He insisted that “it’s not that we’re trying to keep the medical marijuana from people in the county.”
Further, Langford vowed to “always keep an open mind.”
The News Service of Florida reports that Florida started the summer with nearly a quarter-million registered medical-marijuana users served by 22 licensed producers and distributors. New dispensaries open almost weekly, putting the number in the state close to 130 by the end of June.
Columbia Care Services Florida intends to add 50 of those stores. In the 2½ years since passage of Amendment 2 legalizing medical marijuana, Columbia and other medical cannabis companies in the state have reached a “comfort level” with Florida’s local governments, according to Nicholas Vita, Columbia CEO.
Columbia came to DeSoto as a partner with Better-Gro, the original license holder in Arcadia. The company is one of the holders of the largest numbers of cannabis licenses in the United States. It went public on Canada’s Aequitas NEO Exchange in April and reports a market capitalization of $179 million.
For now, DeSoto County officials are happy to have medical marijuana made in the county, as long as it is not sold to individual cannabis patients looking to buy locally.
“From what we understand,” the county’s Tara Poulton said, “subscribers are able to access the product from dispensaries in other areas with relative ease.”