Medical marijuana dispensaries have yet to be welcomed in Collier County but that could change in a few months.
Collier zoning staff are drafting an amendment to the county’s land development code to potentially allow the dispensaries to operate in the same zoning districts as pharmacies.
DO YOU HAVE OUR FREE NEWS APP? Find out how to get it here!
The process would take several months because the zoning designation would have to go through the county’s Planning Commission and get a supermajority vote of support from the Collier County Commission.
Commission chairman Bill McDaniel at the board’s May 10 meeting requested and got support to start the process by having staff draw up the language for the designation.
In case you missed it: Florida Supreme Court strikes proposed measure legalizing recreational use of marijuana
There are no medical marijuana dispensaries in unincorporated Collier, McDaniel said. The city of Naples does not have any dispensaries, said city spokeswoman Monique Barnhart.
State records show one dispensary in Marco Island is approved by a company called Muv at 695 Bald Eagle Drive. There are 28 in Lee County, which includes 10 dispensaries in Bonita Springs.
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.
Nearly 717,000 Florida residents have qualified to be medical marijuana users in Florida and 2,300 physicians are registered to diagnose patients who could benefit from it, according to the Office of Medical Marijuana Use, which operates within the state Department of Health. There are 428 dispensaries statewide.
Thirty-eight states have laws allowing medical marijuana as of February, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Marijuana: What does Florida law say?
The Florida law enacted in 2017 says counties can outright ban dispensaries or allow them in the same zoning as pharmacies but not within 500 feet of schools, according to the county.
In addition, local governments cannot limit the number of dispensaries in the community or adopt rules that are more restrictive than the state regulation.
Four times in 2018 the Collier commission failed to approve a land code amendment to allow the dispensaries where pharmacies are located.
McDaniel said at the recent board meeting that it is time to re-examine the issue since the dispensaries are legal in Florida.
Opponents in the past have argued that medical marijuana could become a gateway drug to other drug use but McDaniel said that’s not been proven.
“The fear factor that was brought out about them have proven folly,” McDaniel said.
Nick Garulay, founder and chief executive officer of My Florida Green in Collier at 3400 Radio Road, said he has spoken before the county board during the prior debates when they failed to adopt the zoning language.
His company has qualified 30,000 residents of Naples and Bonita Spring for medical marijuana since 2016. Naples residents have to go to Bonita Springs to get their supply.
“It has been very disheartening,” he said, but added he’s confident this time that enough commissioners will approve the zoning for dispensaries.
Given the patient volume in Naples, Garulay said he expects 10 or so dispensaries will open pretty quickly in Collier if approved.
Commissioner Burt Saunders asked staff to reach out to Bonita Springs officials to see if there have been any criminal events related to the dispensaries in the city.
Bonita Springs Mayor Rick Steinmeyer could not be reached for comment.
Several of the dispensaries in Bonita Springs could not be reached about the potential of losing customers from Naples in the near future.
If the measure gets approved, McDaniel wants to earmark sales tax proceeds from the Collier dispensaries to local organizations that serve residents who need care for mental health and substance abuse issues.
Is marijuana a gateway drug?
Numerous studies have been done on whether marijuana serves as a gateway to use of other drugs but the studies don’t often separate out if that is the case for marijuana for medicinal purposes.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse points to a 2019 study that says more research is needed on the effect of medical marijuana laws on opioid deaths and “cautions against drawing a causal connection between the two.”
One study funded by the drug institute published findings in 2014 found that from 1999 to 2010, states with medical marijuana laws saw slower rates of opioid overdoses compared to states without medical marijuana laws.
Garulay of My Florida Green said: “Alcohol is a gateway drug. Medical marijuana is an exit drug, it gets you off drugs.”
Another study funded by the national institute that looked at the data through 2017 had the opposite finding, that states allowing medical marijuana saw a nearly 23% higher overdose death rate.
And yet another research finding conducted at Nationwide Children’s Hospital found that from 2006 through 2013, the rate of marijuana exposure among children under the age of 6 rose by nearly 148% but was higher (up 610%) in states that had legalized medical marijuana.
This article originally appeared on Naples Daily News: Cannabis dispensaries: Medical marijuana clinics in Naples