HEALTH

Are medical marijuana dispensaries coming to Collier County? The answer likely is 'no'

There are roughly 30 dispensaries in Lee County and one in the city of Marco Island. None in the city of Naples

Liz Freeman
Naples Daily News

Anyone needing medical marijuana in Collier County will need to drive to a neighboring county, get it delivered by mail or use the sole dispensary in Marco Island.

At least that’s the intent behind a Collier County Commission unanimous vote Tuesday to prohibit medical marijuana dispensaries in unincorporated areas of the county through an ordinance that needs to be drafted and brought back for ratifying.

The ordinance ban will be brought to the county board at its next scheduled meeting Feb. 14, according to the commission calendar.

Commissioners Chris Hall and Dan Kowal, both new to the commission since the November general election, support a ban and said it was time to stop kicking the can down the road.

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

Currently there are no medical marijuana dispensaries in the county’s jurisdiction but one operates in Marco Island that city leaders there approved. The city of Naples does not allow them.

What the commission was considering Tuesday was a land amendment code to allow the dispensaries in the same zoning as pharmacies, which is allowed under state law. Counties can also do an outright ban.

The board last September delayed a decision because the November election was coming up.

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

Commissioner Burt Saunders said Tuesday the problem with a land amendment change is there would be no limit to the number of dispensaries that could open.

“You can have one or you can have 100,” Saunders said. “I think we need to put an end to this discussion.”

Commission Chairman Rick LoCastro supported Saunders’ motion for a ban ordinance, saying people can drive to Lee County or visit the Marco Island dispensary or do mail order.

“I don’t think we are impeding access to medical marijuana for people who need it,” LoCastro said.

Commissioner Bill McDaniel, who initiated the discussion last May, said his view is that dispensaries are “not the evil they are put out to be.”

McDaniel said the issue is the county was not following the state Constitution by never formally banning them or allowing them where pharmacies are permitted.

Last September, the Collier County Planning Commission sided against allowing medical marijuana dispensaries opening in unincorporated areas of the county.

Where are there dispensaries now?

The bulk of the 30 dispensaries in the region are in Bonita Springs, Fort Myers and Lehigh Acres.

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, Parkinson’s disease and more.

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

Nobody spoke at the commission meeting to advocate for medical marijuana dispensaries, in part because the agenda item was to consider the land amendment code addition and hold two daytime hearings and waive a nighttime hearing requirement.

Nick Garulay, founder and chief executive officer of My Florida Green, which helps people suffering from illnesses get their cards and access to medical marijuana, said in an email after the board decision:

"Collier County is a predominantly conservative and we stand for 'medical freedom' yet we are blocking 'medical marijuana' dispensaries from opening here," Garulay said. "This makes zero sense considering there are liquor stores and pharmacies on every corner."

He said people die from drug and alcohol related incidences on a daily basis yet no one has ever died from a marijuana overdose, which he said is impossible.

Garulay said My Florida Green has 35,000 patients on its platform and 65% who are taking prescribed medications are able to reduce the need for them and 80% have a successful outcome using medical marijuana to treat their debilitating conditions.

"It’s time for empathy and compassion for people who are suffering," he said.

A letter last fall from Dr. Carol Roberts, medical director of Naples Center for Functional Medicine, said the legalization has made a huge difference in the lives of many patients since legalized in 2016.

“In order to make this medicine available to more patients, some of whom are unable to travel out of their homes, let alone the next county, I would strongly recommend the opening of dispensaries in Collier County.”

What do opponents of medical marijuana dispensaries say?

Opponents to dispensaries say medical marijuana can become a gateway drug to other drug use.

Naples Mayor Theresa Heitmann issued a statement against the dispensaries that was included in the commission agenda but not discussed.

“I urge you to be extremely cautious in expanding or allowing medical marijuana dispensaries in Collier County,” Heitmann said. “Short-term and long-term effects of marijuana have been studied and have shown that it can be a gateway drug.”

Collier County Sheriff Kevin Rambosk also sent a statement of opposition.

“I am deeply concerned about the negative impacts that additional dispensaries could have on the safety of our community and cannot support jeopardizing our standing as the safest metropolitan county in Florida,” he said in statement last September.

Veora Little, a longtime representative of Drug Free Collier and Preserve Paradise, lauded the commission’s decision to bring back a ban ordinance. She said there are eight other Florida counties that have bans on dispensaries.

She respects how some people need medical marijuana for their conditions but her focus and that of her group is to protect young people and others who are vulnerable from misusing or abusing medical marijuana.

“We have to protect those who can and do abuse,” she said. “This is a win for our community, our youth, and beautiful Collier County.”