Medical Marijuana Outlets On Hold
April 13, 2005
Steve Irsay, Gazette Newspapers
When California voters approved Proposition 215, better known as the “Compassionate Use Act of 1996,” they decriminalized the personal possession of marijuana for documented medical uses.
What they did not do was lay out specific guidelines for getting the drug into the hands of patients.
Last year’s follow-up statute, SB 420, outlined identification card systems and minimum legal amounts to possess but, again, distribution instructions remained vague.
The matter is further complicated by federal law, which prohibits the possession, cultivation and distribution of marijuana. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule shortly on the case of two California medical marijuana users challenging the ban.
In this absence of clear retail sales options, many patients have resorted to illegal street dealers, relying on doctors’ notes to avoid prosecution. Others have set up collectives, or cannabis clubs, to grow and sell medical marijuana. Some cities, like Oakland, officially license the establishments. Others outlaw them.
Still others, including Long Beach, do not yet regulate the unorthodox operations. As a result, the clubs can exist in a quasi-underground “don’t ask, don’t tell” environment, according to Richard Anthony, a deputy Long Beach city attorney.
“There is no above-ground market the way they have it set up,” he said of the state laws. “It’s kind of black market.”
Long Beach joined a growing list of California cities to impose a moratorium, giving city officials a chance to establish licensing and regulation procedures.
The City Council voted 8-1 to impose the moratorium and asked the city attorney and other departments to report within 60 days on zoning, licensing and legal issues related to the retail sales of medical marijuana.
The move comes seven months after the Long Beach Police Department officially relaxed its policy of immediately arresting or citing purported medical marijuana users, calling instead for officers to further investigate the claim before taking action. The current moratorium does not affect that policy, Long Beach Police Chief Anthony Batts told the council.
The issue of marijuana sales was raised when two business license applications were filed recently. One was for a dispensary at 3711 Long Beach Blvd. in Councilwoman Rae Gabelich’s Eighth District.
Gabelich, who proposed the moratorium, said she supports the medicinal use of marijuana “1,000%,” but added that she wants to make sure the city has the proper conditions in place.
“The idea is to have a plan for this city so that they don’t open on every street corner, so they are not by schools, so they are not in blighted areas,” she said. “I am even thinking we need to limit the number of them — maybe its one per council district.”
Assistant City Attorney Mike Mais said city staff would look into restrictions on location and hours of operation. He added that other California cities have recently been examining similar issues. In the last two months, San Francisco, West Hollywood, Huntington Beach and others have imposed similar moratoriums. Others are considering them.
Opponents of cannabis clubs argue they are magnets for illegal drug activity and other crimes. The small Northern California city of Rocklin outlawed them late last year after the city’s police chief said that, based on conversations with other chiefs, he believed the clubs have negative impacts on public health and safety.
Hilary McQuie, a spokeswoman for medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, said she welcomed the recent moratoriums as signs that cities are taking the issue seriously.
“It’s about time that localities figure out how to best serve and safeguard patients,” she said. “We support cities regulating dispensaries as they would any other kind of health service activity.”
Cities currently examining the issue may look to Oakland for a model. Last year, the city council there established a permitting and regulating process allowing for four medical marijuana dispensaries.
In a report delivered this week, Oakland city officials found that in their first seven months of operation, the clubs “have shown that, in general, they can function without creating a nuisance in the neighborhood or draining police resources.”
There currently are no licensed cannabis clubs in Long Beach, according to city officials. However, they believe one or two are operating. While the moratorium is not meant explicitly to go after those establishments, they would be subject to the same censure as any business operating without a license, Mais noted.
Bill Britt, who said he uses medical marijuana to treat symptoms of epilepsy and post-polio syndrome, said regulated collectives are a vital source of safe medical marijuana for those in need.
“Otherwise, you get it off the streets from criminals and you don’t know what’s in it,” he said before the council meeting. “By having these dispensaries, you know it’s going to be there at a consistent price and safe location.”
Ninth District Councilman Val Lerch, who voted against the moratorium, closed the discussion with a plea for opponents to reconsider their attitude toward medical marijuana. He said his wife suffers from multiple sclerosis but is ashamed to seek a prescription for the drug.
“We as a society have to get beyond this fear of marijuana,” he said. “We are over-thinking this and over-regulating this. It’s ludicrous.”