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Sarasota Blocks Medical Marijuana Dispensaries for Public Safety

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SARASOTA, Fla. (WWSB)--Sarasota city commissioners are extending their ban on medical marijuana dispensaries for 60 days--a move that could conflict with state law.

Patients who are eligible for medical cannabis fear this move could restrict their access to the drug. For Richard Watt, a seizure can strike at any time.

"One seizure could be your last seizure, you never know," Watt said.

It's a condition he has suffered from for eight years, relying on as many as 30 to 40 prescription pills each day. After using medical cannabis for two months, he is now seizure free. But Watt is the first to admit even he was skeptical at first.

"I thought people just wanted to get high, but to me that's not what it is. To me, it's getting normal," Watt said.

He's one of more than 18,000 patients in Florida now allowed to legally purchase and consume cannabis. The drug became legal following a November vote to legalize it in Florida. The amendment passed with support from 71% of voters.

For months, state legislators debated how to implement the law--leaving local governments and law enforcement agencies in limbo.

After much debate and a special session, lawmakers came to an agreement. For one, the law bans smoking of the drug. Plus, since marijuana is still considered an illegal substance on the federal level--card holders can be fired for failing to pass a drug test.

"It's okay for someone with Oxycodone or Xanax to go to work on their lunch break and go pop a couple pills, but if I was to use medical marijuana I could love my job," Watt said.

The law also says local governments must apply the same zoning laws to dispensaries as drug stores.

At the Sarasota Police Department, Captain Corrine Stannish says that could pose a major risk to public safety.

"You can't control their hours. Whether they have a drive through or anything like that," Stannish said.

That's why she encouraged city commissioners to extend a temporary ban on dispensaries. Stannish clarifies the goal is not to restrict access to medical marijuana. She points to the option for delivery and the fact that neighboring Bradenton is set to open a dispensary in August.

"What we want to do is have a more conservative approach," Stannish said. "Sit back and prevent some of the public safety issues that could come with it, but not at the expense of the citizens."

She is also advocating for officers to have access to the compassionate use registry, so they can differentiate between who is legally possessing the drug and who is not.

"If an officer stops somebody on a traffic stop, we want the ability to verify that they are in legal possession of their medical marijuana," Stannish said.

It's all part of the learning curve for this new law, but Watt worries this time of ambiguity might deter someone from considering medical marijuana.

"There's such a gray area right now for everybody and I think that's what's stopping a lot of people from getting the help that they need and that's sad," Watt said.

He points to himself as an example of the benefits medical cannabis can bring.

"I'm back to being the husband I was, the uncle I was, the son I was. I'm back. I've been gone a long time and it feels good to be back," Watt said.