Alabama cities and counties voting to support medical marijuana dispensaries despite long odds in getting one

Securing a license to operate a medical marijuana dispensary might not be as elusive as finding that fictitious gold ticket to tour Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

The growing number of business application requests to operate a dispensary is far outpacing the licenses that can be doled out by a state commission next year.

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Despite what is shaking out to be long odds, cities and counties throughout Alabama are approving resolutions, ordinances or are revising their zoning codes in preparation of hosting a dispensary.

“It will be an extremely competitive process with the limited number of licenses available,” said Brittany Peters, spokesperson with the Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission. “But the commission cannot award a license to operate a facility in an unauthorized (jurisdiction).”

City and town governments from the Tennessee Valley to the Wiregrass have been adopting ordinances in recent weeks backing a medical marijuana dispensary operating within their municipal boundaries.

County commissions have also been voting on resolutions with similar supportive language.

The ordinances and resolutions are also needed for the cities and counties to host an integrated facility that would perform multiple functions including serving as a medical marijuana dispensary.

The votes are required by the 2021 state law that established Alabama as the 37th state to legalize marijuana use for medical purposes.

Long odds

The Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission meets on Aug. 11, 2022 in Montgomery. (Mike Cason/mcason@al.com)

But even after the cities and counites act, it will be a protracted process before decisions are made on whether any part of the state’s evolving medical marijuana operation will come to their jurisdiction.

As of Tuesday, there were 155 businesses requesting applications to operate a dispensary or an integrated facility. That is an increase from 109 earlier this month, and Peters anticipates more applications coming before an October 17 deadline for businesses to submit their requests for applications.

“We are still receiving them daily,” said Peters, referring to the businesses requesting application forms.

The odds are already long because of this limitation: At a maximum, Alabama state law allow for 37 dispensaries statewide.

Only the Alabama Legislature can approve an expansion of the program, but that is unlikely to happen this year.

For now, businesses and local governments are preparing for several key dates:

  • Applications to operate a dispensary or another operation related to the medical marijuana industry in Alabama will be issued to requestors on October 24.
  • The applications then must be submitted to the commission by December 30.
  • The commission is scheduled to vet applicants next year ahead of a vote to reward the licenses at its June 12, 2023, meeting.

Cities, counties act

Peters said there is no deadline for city and county governments to act. But a host of them are doing so following a recent Zoom call hosted by the Alabama League of Municipalities with representatives of the Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission and approximately 45 municipal officials.

For the local governments, the actions are considered largely a “formality” that allows them to host a dispensary. Other operations within the medical marijuana industry – such as cultivators, processors, transporters, and laboratories – do not require an ordinance or resolution approved by a local government entity. Montgomery was the first city to adopt an ordinance in support of hosting a medical marijuana dispensary on December 7, 2021.

Walt Maddox

Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox at a summit on Monday, June 28, 2021, at the Battle House Hotel in Mobile, Ala. (John Sharp/jsharp@al.com).

The only other large city in Alabama to follow suit was Tuscaloosa, which voted on a similar ordinance in August.

“It’s more than just adopting a resolution – the city supports the legislation allowing medical marijuana and believes the state has outlined a process which sets in motion a logical implementation and progression,” said Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox.

He said the “small sample size” of the initial dispensary operations will allow the Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission an “opportunity to evaluate and take corrective action when necessary.”

Said Maddox, “If the initial rollout is proven safe and effective for consumers with no detrimental impacts to communities, the marketplace forces will create the pressures for expansion in the near future.”

Birmingham has not yet addressed the issue. Huntsville and Mobile are considering options on how to move forward.

Within the past week, Dothan, Daphne, and Foley have adopted ordinances to allow for the operation of a medical marijuana dispensary. Gulf Shores will take the matter to its planning commission on Tuesday in the form of a zoning text amendment that defines what is a “dispensary site.”

Opelika city officials could vote on its ordinance soon, and one is expected to be introduced within the next week in Fairhope.

Foley Mayor Ralph Hellmich said his city simply copied the language of the Montgomery city ordinance before voting on it.

He said while there is interest in having a dispensary set up in Foley, the council’s vote does nothing to guarantee that any part of the state’s medical marijuana operation will come to his Baldwin County city.

“It’s extremely restrictive and there is a limit to the number of dispensaries in the state,” Hellmich said.

Early actors

Some of the earliest movers on the ordinances include small communities spread throughout the state.

Cowarts, a Houston County city of around 2,100 residents southeast of Dothan; and Killen, a small town of 1,140 residents east of Florence; are among the first eight cities to adopt ordinances supporting a medical marijuana dispensary.

“Do I think it will ever come to the town of Killen? I doubt it,” said Killen Mayor Tim Tubbs. “But if they do, there is an ordinance passed that gives them the legal right to have (a dispensary) in the town limits. We are just doing what the Legislature says we should do.”

Only four counties have done so – Butler, Cullman, Houston, and Macon.

“I see it as a possibility to do great things in helping us retain our people who are graduating and moving out of the economy,” said Louis Maxwell, the chairman of the Macon County Commission. “We hope to bring some of those (younger workers) back and to form a great partnership with Tuskegee University, which has a tremendous agriculture program.”

Macon County, with a 28% poverty rate is among the poorest counties in Alabama’s Black Belt region, has seen its population drop in recent years. Between 2020 to 2021, the county lost nearly 600 residents, which was the second most in the state. Since 2010, Macon County’s population has declined by 9%.

Maxwell said he is hopeful the county will get one OK’d for a dispensary license. He said there are three possible entities interested in applying for one and is confident they will have a positive impact on Macon County if any of them receive a dispensary license.

“We will definitely support each one of them,” said Maxwell.

Concerned city

The council and county commission votes have produced little, if any, controversy.

At least one Shelby County city wants nothing to do with the industry.

The city of Pelham, in a January 24 resolution, proclaimed it “does not wish to provide for or permit” dispensing sites within its boundaries.

The Pelham City Council’s proclamation outlines several reasons why they do not want to host one of the sites, linking the operation to “recreational” marijuana.

“The council agrees that the state and the city of Pelham have a substantial interest in protecting residents from the dangers of recreational marijuana,” the Pelham resolution reads.

Supporters of the state’s new medical marijuana program have repeatedly stressed that the state is not moving forward with the legalization or recreational marijuana, which is legal in 19 states.

Under Alabama’s program, only doctors who receive training in medical marijuana will be authorized to recommend the products for certain ailments including panic disorder, Parkinson’s Disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain, and other medical issues.

Joe Godfrey, a consultant with the Alabama Citizen’s Action Program, an interdenominational ministry that lobbies for evangelical Christian interests in the Alabama Legislature, said his group advocated for a “medical” marijuana law only, and one that requires cities and counties to have buy-in before a dispensary was set up.

“This adds a layer of protection for and local input from communities,” said Godfrey. “We encourage citizens to contact their local leaders if they want to prevent dispensaries from expanding into their communities.”

Godfrey said his concern is the industry will bring about large revenues to the local communities that receive one of the licenses, bring to fruition what he says is the “age-old argument that people will drive to other cities and counties to get their marijuana, so ‘you might as well keep those dollars in your own city and/or county.’”

He added, “What they fail to disclose is the increase in drug use and the social costs those communities will face.”

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