City of Miami's Marijuana Dispensary Ban Staggers Into Year Three

Medical marijuana was legalized in Florida five years ago, but the City of Miami still won't grant permits for dispensaries.
Medical marijuana was legalized in Florida five years ago, but the City of Miami still won't grant permits for dispensaries.
For more than two and a half years, the City of Miami has been hashing it out with two plaintiffs — MRC44, LLC, and 60 NE 11th, LLC, entities managed by Los Angeles entrepreneur Romie Chaudhari — that want to open a medical marijuana dispensary at 90 NE 11th St., near the nightclubs Space and E11even in the Park West neighborhood.

Though medical marijuana was legalized in Florida five years ago, Miami's city bureaucracy has yet to grant a single permit for a dispensary. The ostensible stumbling block: the federal government's classification of pot as an illegal drug.

The city insists that the 2016 Florida constitutional amendment making medical weed legal under state law is countermanded by the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA), which bans cannabis as a Schedule I controlled substance with "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse."

Plaintiffs argue it's the former. The city says it won't grant the requisite certificate of use owing to the latter.

Chaudhari's companies have been going back and forth with the city since they first applied for a certificate to open in February of 2019 and were denied by the city zoning director on advice from the city attorney's office. In February of this year, after a lengthy dispute, the city's Planning and Zoning Appeals Board (PZAB) disagreed with the advice from the city attorney's office and voted in favor of opening the dispensary.

When the zoning office again refused to grant the certificate, Chaudhari's two entities sued the city in state court, asking a state judge to rule on their right to open and noting that the City of Miami doesn't ban dispensaries outright. With the backing of the city commission, City Attorney Victoria Mendez filed a motion for declaratory relief and the matter was sent to federal court.

U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore kicked the case back down to a lower court in September, finding that there was no conflict between Florida's medical cannabis statute and the federal Controlled Substances Act, and that the matter is best left to the state.

"In other words, this case primarily involves the interaction between a municipality's failure to act and the operation of state law," Moore wrote in his ruling."Given the significance of the City’s inaction under [statute] 381.986 (11)(b)(1), the Court finds that Plaintiffs’ right to relief depends largely upon the construction or application of the state law — not federal law."

Advantage Chaudhari.

A hearing in the case is set for January 14, 2022, in the Eleventh Judicial Circuit. With Moore's rebuke of the city's arguments, the scales seem tipped in favor of Chaudhari and other prospective pot dispensaries in the City of Miami.

Reached by New Times, attorneys for the plaintiffs declined to comment on the case.

Even after strong words from a federal judge, Miami commissioners remain on the fence.

During the December 9 meeting of the Miami City Commission, a majority declined to hear a resolution from the city's zoning office that would force the city to cut bait and side with PZAB or the City Attorney's opinion. The resolution was deferred until January — guaranteeing that the fight to open a dispensary within Miami's city limits will stagger into its third year.

Ken Russell, a Miami city commissioner who has spoken in support of medical marijuana in the past, tells New Times he's optimistic about the plaintiffs' case.

"I'm glad to see that a judge believes that state law prevails in this moment, because state law is clear and the will of the voters is clear," Russell says. "Dispensaries are legal in the state of Florida and should be allowed in any cities that don't opt out."

Given that Congress has moved a step further with passage of the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE Act) to remove the federal ban on marijuana, 2022 might bring a race for Miami to license a dispensary before the federal government ends the debate once and for all.