FL: Medical Marijuana Shops Lack Votes In Collier; Commission Puts Off Issue 6 Months

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Collier County will not have dispensaries for medical marijuana.

At least for now.

County commissioners couldn’t muster the votes Tuesday evening to move forward with Land Development Code changes required to allow the dispensaries.

The hearing, set for 5:05 p.m., attracted only a few speakers, who were evenly divided on the issue.

County staff recommended commissioners adopt changes to the code to allow the dispensaries anywhere that pharmacies are permitted by zoning, as long as they weren’t within 500 feet of a school.

A motion to allow the dispensaries made by Commissioner Bill McDaniel failed to gain enough support, barely mustering a second. He said the county would be wrong to ban the dispensaries, given the widespread support behind a constitutional amendment that legalized the use of medical marijuana in Florida.

“I feel it’s incumbent on us to allow these dispensaries to be located here,” he said.

Only McDaniel and Commission Chairman Andy Solis voted in favor of his motion to approve staff’s recommendations.

A supermajority vote was needed to make the necessary changes to the code. The vote was 2-3.

Seeing that the supermajority vote was not there, Commissioner Burt Saunders suggested county staff bring back the discussion in six months to share how medical marijuana patients are faring in the county. Other commissioners liked the idea.

“If you approve it, the door is wide open,” Saunders said. “If you don’t approve it, you can always open the door later on.”

Commissioner Penny Taylor agreed.

“I think we are very wise to take this very slowly,” she said.

The board’s decision followed a series of regulatory hoops that had to be navigated before bringing the issue back to commissioners, including hearings before two advisory committees.

The outcome didn’t sit well with Yvette Jones, a founder of the Crohn’s Charity Service Foundation in Naples. Jones got emotional about the trouble patients have to go through to get medical marijuana and the extra cost of delivery. She said commissioners just keep kicking the can down the road.

“They keep extending it,” she said. “They will have to give in sooner or later, but as long as they can extend it, that’s what they are going to do.”

In March, commissioners voted 3-2 to move the process for changing the code along, taking the initial steps toward possible approval. Two commissioners, Donna Fiala and Taylor, opposed the idea at the time, saying they were wary about allowing dispensaries.

Not adopting the changes was tantamount to a ban on the dispensaries, said County Attorney Jeff Klatzkow.

The way the county’s code has always been interpreted is that if a use is not specifically authorized in it, then it’s “unauthorized,” or forbidden.

A dispensary isn’t the only way to get medical marijuana. It can be delivered directly to a patient’s door.

Patients also can drive to other places to get it, including nearby Lee County, where there are two dispensaries.

Currently, the closest licensed dispensaries are operated by Trulieve in North Fort Myers and Curaleaf in Fort Myers.

In January, the Fort Myers City Council voted to temporarily ban dispensaries; that ban is scheduled to end July 1. Curaleaf won approval for its shop before that measure took effect.

In Collier, Fiala said she was comfortable with the commission’s decision not to allow dispensaries because she felt the patients who need the medical marijuana can get it delivered — and that might be a safer option because if they are really sick, they shouldn’t be driving anyway.

She said she didn’t like the idea of the open sale of cannabis.

“That just opens the picture wide open,” she said. “I just don’t think we should do that.”

Although he voted in favor of the dispensaries, Commissioner Solis said he thought there was a lack of direction from the Legislature on how to deal with them locally, which has left the county with a “colossal problem.”

“I wish we had a clearer picture on what we should do,” he said.

The lack of support from county commissioners upset Alex Popoff, a local veteran who uses medical marijuana. He walked out in disgust shortly after telling commissioners why they needed to approve dispensaries.

“Delivery is selfish and foolish,” he said.

Allen Weiss, president and CEO of the NCH Healthcare System, was one of the speakers against the dispensaries. He said many people believe marijuana is a starter drug for opioid abuse, which is costing the nation greatly.

“Drug addiction is a major concern for our nation right now,” he said.

In 2016, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the state’s constitution to legalize medical marijuana for patients with certain debilitating diseases and conditions, such as cancer, Parkinson’s disease, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder. These patients are allowed to use the drug under the guidance of state-certified doctors.

The Legislature passed rules establishing how the product would be distributed. Under those rules, county and cities can either ban dispensaries outright or allow them wherever pharmacies are permitted.

The state, not local governments, determines how many dispensaries can open in a city or county.

The state will allow 59 dispensaries in the 11-county region that includes Lee and Collier counties. That number could increase if more doctors start treating patients with medical marijuana.

At its April 30 meeting, the Collier County Planning Commission did not support the idea of having dispensaries in the county. The Planning Commission voted 4-2 to recommend a ban on them.

Planning Commission Chairman Mark Strain, who opposed the code amendment, said he wanted more limits put on where dispensaries can be, which state law doesn’t allow.

“When it was either all or none, it seemed a little extreme,” he said.

But the Development Services Advisory Committee recommended approval of the amendment.

The amendment county staff recommended would have prohibited dispensaries within 500 feet of a public or private school. It also included rules on signs, security measures and design standards.

On Feb. 2, 2017, commissioners put a moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries in the county to give county staff more time to review pending state legislation and to develop land use regulations. The board extended the moratorium twice, with the most recent one set to expire June 30.

According to the Florida Department of Health, almost 112,000 patients have been registered to use medical marijuana in the state. The department has approved 13 treatment centers and 36 dispensaries for seven companies, two of which offer only  deliveries.

Despite medical cannabis laws in more than 45 states, the use of marijuana is still illegal under federal law.