SR considers regulating pot clubs

March 17, 2005

Paul Payne, The Press Democrat

Santa Rosa elected officials said they were surprised to learn that three medical marijuana clubs are operating within the city - one of them across the street from City Hall - and pledged quick action on laws to regulate them. City Councilman Bob Blanchard said the proliferation came to his attention recently when neighbors of a Sonoma Avenue club complained about traffic, public pot smoking and unruly customer behavior.

Blanchard said he paid a visit to Resource Green Caregivers and Patient Group. To his dismay, marijuana sales were in full swing at the 10-month-old club, located in a cinder-block building adjacent to Juilliard Park.

'That was news to me,' Blanchard said. 'I thought, 'How did this happen?''

Mayor Jane Bender also expressed shock.

'It's been off the radar screen for a while,' Bender said. 'I think three clubs is too many.'

They said the council will consider rules to control where and when clubs may open, how many can operate in the city and the conduct expected of customers.

Over the next 60 days, the city plans to see how other communities are dealing with the issue.

On Thursday, officers canvassed the neighborhood near Resource Green, asking residents for feedback about the club, said Rayburn Killion, an outspoken critic who lives a few doors away.

California voters approved the medical use of marijuana in 1996. The initiative has given rise to pot clubs around the state. Federal drug agents have closed some clubs but many jurisdictions are looking for ways to regulate them.

Santa Rosa will seek help from Attorney General Bill Lockyer with the interpretation of legislation that some say has caused a political quagmire.

While the initiative didn't address pot sales and other laws make them illegal, juries in Sonoma County have been reluctant to convict people in cases where medical use was offered as a defense.

District Attorney Stephen Passalacqua has promised not to prosecute people who have valid physician recommendations, and police are taking a 'hands-off approach.'

'We've tried to be very neutral,' Santa Rosa Police Lt. Jerry Briggs said. 'We know the political realities.'

Some club operators and customers said they would welcome local regulations as long as they don't add to costs or limit access.

John Sugg, owner of Caregiver Compassion Center on Montgomery Drive, said an ordinance would help bring medical marijuana into the mainstream and protect suppliers from the federal government, which still considers marijuana a controlled substance.

'I'm in favor of regulations as long as they keep them reasonable,' said Sugg, who opened his center in August. 'If we have to pay fees, it will just be a cost of doing business.'

The owners of another Santa Rosa club, North Bay Collective, which opened last year on West Steele Lane, agreed that city regulations are appropriate.

A man who identified himself as the co-founder said the club screens its customers closely and hasn't had any problems with neighbors.

'We do all the common-sense things anyway,' said the man, who identified himself only as Marco. 'It's just like any other place of business.'

Resource Green owner Ken Haus didn't comment on potential city regulations, but has said he increased security at the club to deal with complaints from neighbors.

A Resource Green customer who requested anonymity said rules were needed to prevent people from smoking pot outside clubs or re-selling it to people without prescriptions.

Crowds of young people at Resource Green caused her to curtail visits, she said.

'This place has gotten out of control,' she said. 'It's scary some of the people you see there.'

Such concerns have led to municipal ordinances elsewhere, regulating aspects of marijuana clubs. In Oakland, for instance, city officials set a limit of three clubs, Briggs said.

Willits is considering a pot club ordinance and Ukiah is looking at rules to regulate growers, though not clubs.

The state will begin issuing identification cards to medical marijuana users in Sonoma, Mendocino and Marin counties in the summer, part of a pilot program in 10 counties designed to protect certified users from arrest and pot seizures.

Councilman Blanchard said Santa Rosa will enter the debate cautiously.

The city hopes to strike a balance between protecting pot club neighbors and the rights of people who are prescribed the drug, he said.

'The problem has been highlighted,' Blanchard said. 'Now we'll take care of it.'

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