Collier takes step toward allowing marijuana dispensaries

Lee Herald Favicon 16The Collier County Commission narrowly voted to take the next step towards allowing medical marijuana dispensaries during their meeting on Tuesday.

In 2016, Florida voters approved a ballot initiative by more than 70 percent that allowed the use of medical marijuana in the state. During a special legislative session in June, state lawmakers set out the framework for how medical marijuana dispensaries would be treated, limiting the regulations that local governments could place on the facility.

According to Collier County Zoning Division Director Mike Bosi, the state requires local governments to either ban dispensaries outright, or treat them like any normal pharmacy, with the exception that they not be located within 500 feet of a school.

The county has had a moratorium on approving dispensaries in place since February of 2017 and has continually renewed it in hopes that the legislature would give local governments more control on how they regulate the facilities. However, with no bill filed to that affect during the recently concluded Florida legislative session, Bosi advised commissioners that no new regulatory powers were likely to be granted, and it was time for the county to decide whether to ban or allow the dispensaries.

Commissioner Burt Saunders agreed, announcing that he was ready to begin the process of approving the dispensaries.

“I think we have done what we could do in terms of holding the opening of these dispensaries, waiting for the legislature, that didn’t happen, and I am ready to move forward with the board in approving medical marijuana dispensaries,” Saunders said.

But not all of the members felt the same way, with Commissioner Donna Fiala warning that this may open the floodgates for dispensary facilities.

“I fear that they say once you approve, you can have as many dispensaries as you have pharmacies and we have them on every street corner, so I have a great concern,” Fiala said.

The law does place both a hard cap on how many dispensaries can exist statewide as well as a limit on how many can exist in each region of the state depending on population.

Commissioner Andy Solis told his fellow members that, despite how he may or may not personally feel about dispensaries, he did not see how the county could deny access to something that the citizens had voted into the constitution.

“I just don’t know how we can ban something that is provided for in the constitution as a right,” said Solis.

Ultimately the board voted 3-2 in favor of directing county staff to draft an ordinance that allows dispensaries to operate inside the county, with Commissioners Donna Fiala and Penny Taylor dissenting. The board will have to approve the new ordinance by at least a 4-1 vote at later meeting in order to give the final go ahead on permitting dispensary facilities.

Lee County currently has no moratorium on dispensaries, and Bonita Springs voted last week to lift their temporary ban, but many cities in Southwest Florida still have moratoriums that have left citizens seeking medical marijuana in limbo. The Collier moratorium will still stay in place through June 30 unless the commission approves the new ordinance.

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