45-day ban on new pot stores

March 08, 2005

Todd Milbourn, Modesto Bee

An emergency ordinance approved Tuesday night prohibits new medical marijuana stores in Modesto for 45 days — but does not affect a pot store that's operating in a strip mall on McHenry Avenue.

At a hearing that featured impassioned pleas from patients who use marijuana, council members voted 6-0 in favor of the temporary ban, saying it would give them time to figure out how to best regulate such stores.

'Our concern is not about the medical use of mari-juana,' Councilman Brad Hawn said, 'but the potential issues around that.'

Patients still will be able to get their marijuana prescriptions filled at the California Healthcare Collective, which moved to the strip mall last week after several months of quiet operation in a McHenry Avenue store closer to downtown.

California voters, by approving Proposition 215 in 1996, gave people the right to secure prescription marijuana to alleviate pain.

No council member challenged that right. Instead, council members said they wanted to find the best way to handle marijuana stores in the community.

'I don't want one next to a park, next to a church, next to a school,' Councilman Garrad Marsh said.

After the hearing, several opponents of the ban said they were disappointed with the council's action but felt it was something they could live with.

Laura Bell of Modesto said she's fine with the city regulating, policing and taxing such stores. 'But when you're making these decisions, just don't think of these people as all teens hanging out on the corner. Think about that grandmother lying in bed who needs it to cope,' she said.

Robert Blanchard of Ceres, who suffered a neck injury and uses a wheelchair, said the availability of legal pot in Modesto keeps him and others from having to drive to the Bay Area for their prescriptions. Blanchard said he receives more relief from smoking marijuana than popping an array of pills.

'These pills rot my stomach,' Blanchard said. 'Not taking them means I might live longer.'

City Council members reviewed a report from the police chief of Rocklin, in Placer County, who suggested crimes such as the illegal sale of marijuana sprout near medical marijuana facilities. In June, Rocklin approved a permanent ban against such shops.

Councilman Will O'Bryant, who initially was critical of Modesto's temporary ban but later voted for it, said he was skeptical that California Healthcare Collective posed a major threat to city order.

'What is the emergency here?' he asked. 'How many riots have we had, how many robberies have we had?'

While several nearby busi-nesses have complained about parking and loitering, no reports of major incidents were relayed to the council Tuesday night.

O'Bryant said the city is partly to blame for doling out business licenses to medical marijuana facilities in the first place. He also said the city would be wise to spend its time dealing with more pressing matters, such as taxes and transportation.

The vote directed city staff to send the council a report in 35 days that outlines how the city best could handle the location and regulation of such shops.

For all the emotion of Tuesday's hearing, the debate might soon be rendered moot by the U.S. Supreme Court. In November, justices heard arguments on medical marijuana in California, and are expected to issue a decision within months. Federal law prohibits marijuana use for any purpose.

Medical marijuana shops are common in coastal California — there are nearly 50 in San Francisco alone, said Dane Wilkins of Northern California NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

But few have taken root in the San Joaquin Valley, which has a tradition of social conservatism, he said. Wilkins said there are two in Merced County; one in San Joaquin County; and none in Tuolumne County.

Opponents of the Modesto ban said at least two other medical marijuana shops had obtained business licenses but had not yet opened.

City Council members said they would meet with representatives of those businesses and consider exceptions to the 45-day ban.

Mayor Jim Ridenour missed the meeting. He is in Washington, D.C., on a lobbying trip.

In other action, the council voted 6-0 to:

Rezone nearly 20 acres of vineyards along Maze Boulevard for construction of a new church and ministries building for St. Stanislaus Catholic Church. The Rev. Bill McDonald said the new facilities 'will be a beautiful addition to our side of the tracks — west Modesto.'

Approve a two-year strategy to balance the city's budget. The effort is likely to include hefty across-the-board cuts, affecting even the Police and Fire departments, officials said. The budget is due to be ironed out during coming hearings.

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