Southaven opted out of the Mississippi medical marijuana law but plans to opt in later this summer to give itself time to revise its zoning laws to properly accommodate dispensaries who want to open in the city.
Mayor Darren Musselwhite, who has been a strong advocate for medical marijuana, said the city had concerns that the law did not allow cities to control the zoning where marijuana dispensaries could open and urged the legislature to amend the law.
However, the city received an opinion by Attorney General Lynn Fitch on Friday which states that the law does give cities the authority to regulate dispensaries in commercial zones.
Southaven is proposing to create a special commercial medical zone located around the hospital and doctor’s offices where dispensaries would be allowed.
But because cities only have until May 2 to opt-out of the law, the board of aldermen voted 6-0 to opt out and to start the process of revising its zoning laws to create the new sub category so they can opt-in at a later date.
Officials hope to be able to have the new new zoning regulations in place in 90 to 120 days.
“I know people are passionate about this issue,” Musselwhite said. “I am a strong supporter of medical marijuana. I want it here as quick as we can get it here. Zoning is crucial for a city. All we asked for was that there be language in there allowing cities to have zoning authority over dispensaries like we have for Walgreens, CVS, every drug store and every other business in the city.”
Although the AG opinion does not have the force of law, City Attorney Nick Manley told the board he is satisfied with the response they received from the Attorney General and advised them to opt-out and proceed with amending their comprehensive zoning plan to create a special medical district zone just for dispensaries.
“Under the opinion, we have the authority to do those things,” Manley said. “As it stands now, this can be set up to create zoning to allow dispensaries for medical marijuana within certain districts in the city as approved by the board and rezone those areas that need to be as long as it is consistent with our comprehensive plan.”
Andrew Durham, a disabled military verteran, voiced support for the law and told the board that there are a lot of veterans like himself who live in Southaven who need medical marijuana to help with PTSD and pain from old war wounds.
“Southaven has a lot of veteran residents,” Durham said. “But somehow we are forgotten about.”
Durham suffered a back injury which cut his military career short and left him with severe pain and is no longer able to get the pain medication he needs.
Durham said he lived in Riverside, California and tried medical marijuana which helped relieve his conditions.
“My kid said ‘dad, you need to try it.’ So I did,” Durham said. “I was able to sleep. I was able to rest during the day when I needed to take a nap because I did’t get enough sleep at night.”
Durham urged the board to consider the needs of its disabled veterans living in the city.
“I’m not the only one,” Durham said. “There are a lot of us. I have a group of friends and on any given day we call each other and need one to come pick the other one up and give them a ride. There are days I can’t even put my shoes on. But nobody sees that but our families. So I ask that you think of us when you make your decision. This can help us.”
Musselwhite thanked Durham for his comments and reiterated that he is a strong advocate of medical marijuana, but wants to make sure the city gets the zoning right.
“In advocating for medical marijuana, I have used what you have said,” Musselwhite said. “But I want you to know that has been the goal from the beginning, to bring something here for exactly what you said – to help the veterans, to help the children, to help all people who have chronic pain. I am with you 100 percent and I want to bring medical marijuana to Southaven.”
Musselwhite showed the board a map of the proposed areas where they believe medical marijuana would be a good fit. He said there is empty property in the area south of Goodman Road around Airways Blvd. and Physician’s Lane that would be ideal for marijuana dispensaries.
“We felt like we proposed it large enough to where you will have adequate opportunities for businesspeople to come in and put dispensaries in,” Musselwhite said. “It puts it near the medical facility but then keeps it away from residential homes.”
Musselwhite emphasized though that the proposed zoning boundaries are just that – a proposal. Nothing has been officially decided yet.
“It’s not a done deal but is what I will recommend to the board,” Musselwhite said. “This is proposed. It doesn’t mean the board is going to accept this.”
Planning Director Whitney Choat-Cook said the planning department should be able to have the maps ready by the end of the summer.
“These are fictional lines right now,” Choat-Cook said. “If there is something that concerns you, we can always address it, pull it back to the west or the east. What we are trying to is create one centralized area around the offices in the medical district district. It just seemed very centralized to us.”
Choat-Cook said she doesn’t expect there to be opposition because all they are doing is creating an additional use.
“Basically what we are doing is still allowing everything that is allowed in that area, but what we are going to do is in addition to that, we are going to have dispensaries allowed in that specific area,” Choat-Cook said. “So I don’t feel like there is going to be any negativity to it.”
Alderman-at Large George Payne said he likes the idea of creating a new commercial medical zone for dispensaries.
“I’m very excited that we got a positive opinion from the AG,” Payne said. “I feel certain that as long as it leads to medical marijuana where the people who need it can get it, I’m in support of the plan. I am fine with opting-out as long as we lead to this.”
Ward 6 Alderman Raymond Flores agreed that the new zoning will accomplish the intent of what the citizens of Southaven want to see happen.
“I think this is the path we need to take,” Flores said. “We all want this. We just need to be prudent.”
Musselwhite thanked the board and said by opting-out and taking their time to make sure they do it the right way, it will ultimately help other cities bring medical marijuana to their cities.
“So Southaven has been a leader in this and I commend my team,” Musselwhite said.