Collier planning board votes against land use change to allow medical marijuana dispensaries

Laura Layden
Naples Daily News
The Collier County Planning Commission voted not to recommend a land use change that would allow medical marijuana dispensaries, such as this one, to open in the unincorporated area of the county. Currently, they're banned.

The Collier County Planning Commission has sided against opening the door to medical marijuana dispensaries.

In a unanimous decision Thursday night, commissioners agreed to recommend keeping the status quo.

Currently, the dispensaries are not allowed anywhere in the unincorporated area — essentially anywhere outside of city limits in Collier.

Cities make their own rules.

Collier County commissioners are expected to vote on whether to reverse course next month.

Two hearings are scheduled for Oct. 11 and Oct. 25.

Allowing the dispensaries would require an amendment to the county's land development code. 

Previously:Medical marijuana dispensaries could be coming to Naples soon, thanks to code change

More:Disgraced Collier deputy manager resigns from secret lobbyist job; more Florida ties revealed, ethics experts weigh in

In 2018, commissioners couldn't muster a supermajority vote to add dispensaries as an allowed use. That had the effect of a ban.

Collier County's code states: "Any use or structure not specifically identified in a zoning district as a permitted use, conditional use, or accessory use shall be prohibited in such zoning district."

After hearing from a cadre of opponents late Thursday, the planning commission voted 6-0 to recommend denial of a code change.

In part, commissioners said they didn't have enough information to favor it.

Several pointed out the dispensaries are still not technically legal under federal law, which made them uncomfortable. 

Commissioner Robert Klucik made the motion not to support the dispensaries, saying patients have plenty of ways to get what they need, whether by a short drive or by delivery to their door.

"No one is being harmed by saying no," he said.

Others on the advisory board agreed.

"I don't think we have done enough homework to open the door," said commissioner Paul Shea.

With more information, several commissioners said they might be willing to change their minds.

Only a few speakers favored the change, saying the dispensaries would be helpful, not hurtful, to the county, giving residents a place to ask questions and get guidance on what to buy without having to drive so far from home.

Now, the closest dispensaries are in the cities of Bonita Springs and Marco Island, where elected leaders have decided to allow them. They're banned by law in the city of Naples.

Those who argued against allowing the dispensaries in unincorporated Collier raised myriad concerns. Among their claims? That the stores could increase crime, homelessness and drug addiction in the county — as well as ruin the beautiful landscape, with "pot shops" at every corner.

Naples Mayor Teresa Heitmann and Collier County Sheriff Kevin Rambosk are among some of the more well-known opponents. 

One speaker warned planning commissioners that allowing the dispensaries could give rise to a shadow marijuana market in Collier County, attracting drug cartels as it has in California, where she used to live, selling the drug at cut-rate prices.

Several residents argued it's only a matter of time before Florida legalizes marijuana for recreational use, making dispensaries true "pot shops," with looser restrictions. They told the planning commission to not "let the bullet leave the gun."

Planning commissioners heard complaints about how adults are getting more medical marijuana than they need — or can use — and how it's ending up in the hands of teens who are vaping it.

"Two of my kids, they have experience with the vaping, and I can tell you it's not a good thing. I'm living through it," said Jose Jaramillo, a long-time Collier County resident.

He said he still has three teens at home and the dispensaries will only make it easier for marijuana to get into their hands.

"Please say no to this dispensing," Jaramillo said.

Several residents argued patients who really need medical marijuana can get it delivered to their door, so there's not a real need for dispensaries in the county.

County staffers did not make a recommendation on the land use change, due to a conflict, making the decision more challenging for the planning commission.

County commissioners asked staff not to weigh in on the proposed land use change because of a former deputy manager's firing over secretly working as a lobbyist for private companies, which may have included dispensaries that want to locate in the county.

If the county allowed the dispensaries, it couldn't limit the number of them under state law. Based on Collier's population, Mike Bosi, the county's planning and zoning director, estimated more than a dozen could open in the unincorporated area if permitted.

"You are limited by market demand," he said.

On May 10, county commissioners, by a vote of 5-0, directed staff to craft, advertise and bring back a proposed code amendment for their consideration that would allow the dispensaries.

Commission chairman Bill McDaniel requested and got support to start the process. At the time, he said fears that medical marijuana could become a gateway to the use of other drugs had "proven folly."

If the measure gets approved, McDaniel has said he wants to earmark sales tax revenues from the Collier dispensaries to local organizations that serve residents who need care for mental health and substance abuse problems.

Florida voters in 2016 overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the state constitution to legalize medical marijuana for patients with certain debilitating conditions that include cancer, chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder and Parkinson’s disease.

Patients get the marijuana under guidance from state-certified physicians and receive a qualified patient identification card.

There are now more than 450 dispensaries operating in Florida cities, towns and counties that have allowed them to set up shop in their borders.

Daily news reporter Liz Freeman contributed to this story.