San Francisco hearing examines options for regulating medical marijuana

April 24, 2005

Jo Stanley, San Francsico Chronicle

The question of how to get a handle on The City's many medicinal marijuana clubs brought forth a wide range of comments Monday from government officials, neighbors, patients and advocates at a public hearing Monday.

The number of clubs has shot up dramatically to 38 in the past year and a half, plus five delivery operations, and some residents say the clubs are unwelcome in their neighborhoods. But advocates urged city officials not to jeopardize the service.

'Medicinal marijuana is not a slippery slope or a pretext for legalizing marijuana,' said former District Attorney Terrence Hallinan. 'The two issues should not be confused.'

Hallinan said he spent years sorting out neighborhood issues, at first informally working with a handful of outlets and then contending with ever-changing legal circumstances after state voters in 1996 approved the drug's use by seriously ill patients even though federal law bans it.

Now a U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Raich vs. Ashcroft case could be issued any day, potentially allowing federal authorities greater leeway to intervene. Robert Raich, an attorney promoting his wife Angel's right to keep using the marijuana her doctor recommended, urged the supervisors to come up with their own rules instead of fixed limits that cities such as Oakland have enacted.

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who called for the hearing before the Government Audit and Oversight Committee, said he would introduce legislation in the next few weeks that would likely extend the current 45-day moratorium on new clubs to allow for further hearings. Open issues include what sort of fees and inspections are needed as well as how close the facilities can safely be to schools, child-care centers and each other.

'This is new law,' he said after the four-hour hearing adjourned. 'It's very exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time.'

City zoning administrator Lawrence Badiner said only two of the 38 existing clubs have permits, so one decision will be whether to approve the other outlets, which are mostly concentrated in the Haight District and South of Market.

Laura Weil, who lives in the SoMa area, said she wants help dealing with nine clubs nearby, including some with parking lots allowing patients to arrive, smoke the marijuana, then drive away. 'The voluntary model hasn't worked,' she said.

Others called for a take-out-only system to eliminate loitering and other neighborhood concerns, or a patient-centered collective approach. Questions of taxation, production and distribution were largely left for another day.

The local discussion is unfolding under the watchful eye of the federal government — literally, as it turned out Monday. Mirkarimi said after the hearing he was surprised to learn that a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration official had apparently been sitting in, unannounced, during the hearing. 'I think that he should have revealed himself to us as a courtesy,' the supervisor said.


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