County weighing limit on cannabis clubs

May 12, 2005

Ivan Delventhal, Contra Costa Times

Alameda County supervisors will consider an ordinance to allow no more than five medical marijuana clubs in unincorporated areas.

And Supervisor Nate Miley is asking the county to consider opening a dispensary inside Fairmont Hospital, a county-owned facility in San Leandro.

"I think it is the right thing to do ... if it's medicine, let's put it in a health setting," Miley said Monday at a meeting of the supervisors' transportation and planning committee.

On Monday, the committee forwarded to the full board the proposal for a five-club maximum and Miley asked the county counsel's office to explore the dispensary idea.

Miley said he envisions the county either dispensing the marijuana or contracting out that service. Under the Fairmont plan, the hospital would be the sole provider of medical marijuana in unincorporated areas and all other clubs would close.

County Counsel Richard Winnie said his office will explore it, but he noted it will probably take months to analyze possible effects.

The supervisors are under pressure to pass a medical marijuana ordinance. Sheriff Charles Plummer has promised to shut down the seven operating dispensaries if a law governing such sites is not passed by June 17.

The full board is tentatively scheduled to consider the ordinance May 24. Its passage would not preclude the county from later pursuing the Fairmont Hospital option.

Plummer said Monday that he strongly supports the Fairmont idea.

"We have a chance in this county to be a model of how it really should run," he said.

The proposed ordinance would allow up to five dispensaries to operate in the unincorporated areas of Castro Valley, San Lorenzo, Ashland and Cherryland. The clubs would have to apply for a county permit that would be valid for two years.

The proposal would also seek to spread out the clubs by creating five geographic zones. Each could be home to only one club. Under the ordinance, at least two of the currently operating dispensaries would be closed.

The clubs would have to be at least 1,000 feet apart from each other and at least 1,000 feet from a playground, school or park. Dispensaries would have to be placed in commercial or industrial zones.

In the application, club operators would have to include information including a description of proposed security arrangements and how they would deal with potentially adverse impacts such as loitering or noise.

The entire issue, though, is clouded by one major contradiction, namely that while state law allows for medical marijuana, federal law prohibits possession, use or sale of the drug. By setting up a permit system, or establishing a Fairmont dispensary, the county could be perceived as unlawfully sanctioning an activity prohibited by federal law.

About 20 speakers on both sides of the issue addressed the committee Monday.

Some, like William Drury of Castro Valley, described marijuana as a "miracle" medicine. He said it helps him cope with irritable bowel syndrome and lead a productive life.

Others, like Angelo Madrigal, director of student services with San Lorenzo Unified School District, said the presence of clubs near schools undermines the "stay away from drugs" message delivered by teachers.

Jane Weirick of Hayward said afterwards it is absurd to think a single dispensary at Fairmont could meet the needs of all of the patients in the unincorporated areas.

"It would be like saying every diabetic in Alameda County now has to get their insulin from one facility," she said.

Meanwhile, supervisors Scott Haggerty and Miley expressed differences over whether they would push the Fairmont idea without federal approval.

Haggerty said afterward he would not support the Fairmont idea without a federal green light, but Miley said that would not deter him.

"I think what we'd have to do is weigh the risks and then make a decision based on that analysis," Miley said.

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