How to Seek Zoning Approval for Marijuana in Florida

The legal process to seek cannabis real estate

Alicia Lewis is a land use and zoning attorney at Greenspoon Marder in Fort Lauderdale, and she looks at cannabis clients like any other real estate project—with the caveat that cannabis has its own unique sets of challenges.

Though the state of Florida officially legalized medical marijuana in March 2019, marijuana remains federally illegal. And it’s also sometimes stigmatized when it comes to building owners, financial institutions, and the municipalities and public officials you must work with for approval before initiating a commercial operation.

“There are a lot of hurdles to jump through, so you have to be committed to finding the right property and dealing with whatever comes with it,” Lewis says.

“You need to meet distance separation requirements of the local municipality. You have to find one in a municipality that hasn’t opted out. And you have to find a space that fits what you need, noting that there are additional security and fire safety requirements,” she says. “Once you find this golden egg of a property, then you need to lock it down and make the owner feel comfortable—because they have insurance and mortgage issues—while you go through the approval process.”

One of the most important elements of the state’s marijuana licensing process is the requirement that companies must receive zoning approval. Here are some things to know about that process.  

Florida Requires a Comprehensive Business Plan to Obtain an MMTC License

As a starting point, cannabis businesses seeking to operate in Florida must obtain the appropriate license from the state’s Department of Health. For example, all dispensaries in Florida must have a valid Medical Marijuana Treatment Center (MMTC) license. Without a valid state license in hand, medical marijuana companies cannot operate in any local jurisdiction in the state. Applicants for an MMTC license must demonstrate a number of things, including:

  • A history of business registration in Florida;
  • Evidence of technical ability to operate in the industry;
  • A viable plan to secure the appropriate premises; and
  • Sufficient financial capital to maintain operation.

In addition, corporate officers, board members, and the owners of the business will be required to undergo background screening. Prior criminal convictions could potentially make a person ineligible to serve in one of these positions. 

Local Governments Play a Key Role

One of the most important things to know is that state regulators will not issue a cannabis license unless the company has a workable plan to obtain an approved premises. For this reason, local regulations are extremely important.

Florida municipalities began opting in or out for commercial marijuana operations back in 2017. While you can approach a community’s officials to change their minds, “Those that opt out are looked at kind of like a dry county,” Lewis says.

Those that opt in are meant to treat cannabis facilities like a pharmacy, as far as zoning is concerned, she adds. But some have adjusted their local codes—for instance, to change distance requirements from schools.

“For many of these, I know where the issues lie,” Lewis says. “I’ll steer clients away from certain municipalities where I’ve been there to see the debate. For example, I worked on a grower facility where we sought the approval of a small board, and one of the members voted ‘no’ for moral reasons when we were simply there for water permitting. So even if you have something boilerplate, you may still get some individuals in opposition.”

Companies need to work with both local zoning boards and state regulators in obtaining approval for a medical marijuana commercial license.

“I tell clients that they have to be able to educate local elected officials about what they do, because there are so many stereotypes and misconceptions,” Lewis says. “They think these are unsafe places where children are going to be and there are all these safety concerns and it’ll be the downfall of the neighborhood. You have to advocate for what you’re really doing: Helping people who are suffering from serious illnesses.”

Why You Might Need an Attorney

A Florida land use/zoning attorney can help you put a plan together to seek approval from the relevant board and then take that approval to state regulators to get a marijuana license.

“If you don’t know the lay of the land, or if you’re not aware of changes to zoning codes, you want an attorney to avoid wasting time and money,” says Lewis. “You may find a location you think is great, but you may be wasting your time. Imagine putting down half-a-million dollars or more to save a property you can’t ever open.”

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