Last November voters across the state approved a ballot initiative for medical marijuana. While election day was the end of long battle for some, it was just the beginning of another for others. Because when it comes to transferring a ballot question into public policy, as the old adage says, “the devil is in the details.”
After the votes were counted, the burden to develop the multitude of safeguards and regulations falls to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. The department has previously stated that it will begin to accept applications for cultivating, manufacturing and dispensing of medical marijuana on Aug. 3. Currently, state officials estimate that medical marijuana will be available to patients in early 2020.
Local municipalities all over the state are scrambling to adjust local zoning ordinances in response to the new law. How those zoning ordinances are drafted, amended and enforced will have a significant impact on the placement of medical marijuana facilities. Some local officials are eager to accommodate these new entrepreneurial opportunities and the tax revenue that can accompany them. But other officials have serious reservations and concerns.
Maryland Heights, Creve Coeur, St. Ann and Webster Groves are among a handful of St. Louis area municipalities that have already amended their zoning ordinances to prepare for potential marijuana businesses.
Ellisville also is considering carefully its next steps.
The city potentially possesses some of the most desirable business locations for medical marijuana dispensaries. Within the 4.25 square miles that make up the city boundaries, Ellisville sits on prime stretches of both Clarkson and Manchester roads.
A traffic data study done by the Missouri Department of Transportation in 2016 showed between 38,000 and 41,000 passenger vehicles travel along those roadways in Ellisville every day. The corridor holds some of the best drive-by potential in West County.
At its April 17 meeting, the Ellisville City Council took up the issues around zoning for medical marijuana businesses.
“Economically speaking, we would be lucky to get one,” Ellisville council member Cindy Pool [District 3] said of a potential marijuana dispensary. She further noted that medical marijuana will be heavily regulated by the state and is an “above board business.”
One of the major points of contention between advocates of medical marijuana and opponents has been the potential tax revenue that legalization will produce. According to figures published by Forbes in May 2018, neighboring Illinois generated over $91 million from medical marijuana sales. Just like tobacco and alcohol, medical marijuana is subject to its own state and local sales tax rates. That means revenue potential is there for both state and local coffers.
The Missouri auditor’s office has projected a boost of about $18 million annually to the state budget with another $6 million for local governments.
Many local communities could benefit from additional tax revenue. Ellisville Mayor Mike Roemerman noted his city is no exception.
“We managed to stabilize our sales tax collections last year,” Roemerman said during the April 17 council meeting. “But [sales tax revenue] is down again this year.”
He estimated that the tax revenue off of one dispensary could offset the recent loss of revenue due to the closing of a local grocery store.
But there also is reason to pause before counting any potential tax revenue windfall. According to a study published last year by The Pew Charitable Trusts, so-called “sin taxes” [like those on tobacco, gambling or medical marijuana] can be unreliable. For instance, tax revenues in Colorado on medical marijuana since 2014 have remained relatively stagnant. That flies in the face of some claims that medical marijuana is a growth industry and potential revenue boon to state and local budgets.
Even if the most optimistic projections on new tax revenue on the local levels are realized, city officials still find themselves navigating a social and political minefield on what has long been a taboo issue. That’s led many local leaders to move cautiously into this new territory.
Keeping a safe distance
In Ellisville, considerable dialogue was held on so-called “buffer zones” which is the distance between potential medical marijuana businesses and protected entities like churches, schools and day care centers. Regulations of this type are already in place for liquor stores. Ultimately, the council agreed to a distance of 300 feet after considering a detailed map and striving to strike a balance between prudent measures and putting undue burdens on potential cannabis business owners.
Due to Ellisville’s size and compact design, the typical measure of 1,000 feet from schools and churches was changed to 300 feet, with added conditional uses for each facility. The only exception would be for dispensaries located within areas zoned as “light-industrial” within city limits.
New state law allows local municipalities to regulate zoning just as they historically have, but with the exception that local authorities should not put unnecessary and unjust burdens on medical marijuana businesses. In other words, local zoning regulations cannot be so stringent as to make putting marijuana business within city limits practically impossible.
Ellisville officials also chose to implement conditional use provisions for most of the city zoned for commercial use. As Roemerman pointed out after the meeting, this was not done accidentally and gives the full city council the opportunity to review each potential business.
Just to the west in Wildwood, city officials haven’t yet had a public dialogue on the issue; however, potential zoning requirements for medical marijuana has been placed on a future agenda of the city‘s zoning and planning committee.
Wildwood Interim Co-Administrator Steve Cross confirmed the city has been approached by three separate entities regarding the possibility of locating a medical marijuana business within city limits. But Cross also noted that it’s still really early with zoning not yet established and the state will not release business applications forms until June.
A maximum of 60 cultivation licenses, 80 manufacturing licenses and 192 dispensary licenses will be issued in the state. Although the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services had initially said it would decide each application within 150 days of receipt, DHSS has since acknowledged the process could take longer depending on the number of applications received.
Even though the introduction of medical marijuana to the marketplace has been a path to recreational use marijuana in some states, local officials are adamant they are two separate issues.
“The possibility of this being approved for recreational use down the road disturbs me greatly,” Roemerman said. “It’s something that weighs heavily in the back of your mind when you consider these things.”