Local government wrestles with legal marijuana

February 12, 2010

David Benda, The Record Searchlight

Carla Thompson, Shasta Lake's top planner, recalled that she felt a sense of urgency last summer when interest in opening medical marijuana dispensaries started growing in her city. The nonprofit clinics had already taken root in neighboring Redding. "We knew how many collectives were in the city of Redding at the time, and we had some concern we might see that same thing happen here," said Thompson, Shasta Lake's development services director.

Planners across the state have struggled with the same issues, scrambling to come up with rules to regulate this green business since the Obama administration last year vowed to stop frequent raids of medical marijuana dispensaries. That declaration opened the door for cannabis collectives in the north state and across California. But as cities and counties either voted to ban dispensaries or place moratoriums on them, nearby cities and counties saw collectives seeking to open in their borders. That led to more moratoriums as city councils and boards of supervisors strove to put the brakes on the growth and come up with regulations limiting where and how many dispensaries could exist.

Nearly 200 California cities have either banned pot collectives or have enforced moratoriums, according to Americans for Safe Access. The medical cannabis advocacy group reports on its Web site that 31 cities in California have specific ordinances for medical marijuana cooperatives.

"We shouldn't be living in an environment where one city can ban the activity and force other cities to deal with the repercussions," Americans for Safe Access spokesman Kris Hermes said.

Regional impact

The city of Mount Shasta was one of those cities forced to deal with such repercussions. This month, it extended a pot clinic moratorium it first imposed in December for another 10 months.

Mount Shasta Mayor Michael Murray said his city was initially persuaded by recent actions of surrounding communities, whose temporary moratoriums had spiked interest in opening cannabis clinics in Mount Shasta.

"Mount Shasta didn't do anything when our first two opened (in) August, but then Dunsmuir, Weed and Yreka all put on moratoriums and our permits doubled with more asking questions," Murray said.

So Murray's city quickly approved the extended moratorium to give it time to arrive at permanent rules for marijuana dispensaries.

Shasta Lake takes action

With an eye on Redding's proliferation of dispensaries - estimated at 20 to 40 - Shasta Lake imposed a 45-day moratorium in early September on the dispensaries in its town before finally enacting a permanent ordinance last month. The emergency moratorium came after two such operations - one that opened its doors a day before the City Council approved the ban - were approved at the staff level.

"Something like this (medical marijuana clinics) has the potential for regional impacts," Thompson said.

Officials in Shasta Lake in early January adopted a permanent ordinance that basically says marijuana collectives are allowed only on Shasta Dam Boulevard - from Cascade Boulevard west to the railroad overcrossing.

Permits needed

With two marijuana collectives, Shasta Lake is overshadowed by Redding, where before the city adopted its new ordinance, there was an estimated 20 to 40 pot clinics doing business.

Under Redding's new law, the collectives must have a permit to operate. Police Chief Peter Hansen said the city has received 20 applications to operate medical marijuana collectives in Redding.

"I think planning is done best when you have a coordinated approach," said Pete Parkinson, the American Planning Association California Chapter's vice president for policy and legislation. "We are much better off when we have a regional approach to planning and similar rules apply from jurisdiction to jurisdiction."

In an unusual step, planners around the north state got together last fall to discuss the impact of medical marijuana dispensaries.

"We shared our approaches and how we were going to move forward," Thompson said.

Shasta County Resource Management Director Russ Mull said it's not a fluke that pot clinics first started proliferating in Redding - it's where most of the people live in the north state.

Shasta County on Tuesday voted to continue talking about a proposed medical marijuana ordinance. The new ordinance, which will be discussed again on Feb. 23, would include zoning and permit requirements, as well as restrictions on how much and where marijuana can be grown.

The county's ordinance was developed after supervisors turned down a 45-day moratorium on cannabis collectives in November.

So while Shasta County continues to haggle over a specific ordinance, there are no rules regulating medical marijuana collectives in the unincorporated areas.

A pressing issue

Mull noted that cannabis collectives are topic A for planners across the state.

"If you read the e-mails from our various professionals, whether it's the environmental (impact), the health or planning, it's just a chatterbox back and forth," Mull said.

And planners are paying attention, watching what neighboring communities are doing as they come up with rules for their own cities and counties.

"Our proposals are frankly a compilation of a half-dozen jurisdictions," Mull said.

In December, the city of Redding decided to allow cannabis clubs, but imposed tight restrictions on them to ensure they operate as nonprofits under Proposition 215. The new rules went into effect in January.

In Tehama County, Red Bluff initially proposed a ban to outlaw dispensaries, then took it back and imposed a moratorium after public outcry.

The Tehama County Board of Supervisors is studying potential elements of a permanent medical marijuana ordinance while a temporary ban remains in place.

Planners are also looking to the courts, an example of the thorny legal issues surrounding pot clubs that will affect decisions.

"The result of the litigation tells us how the legal world will look at whatever proposal the city or county has taken," Tehama County Planning Director George Robson said.

Ultimately, the city of Redding turned to its legal department to finalize regulations for cannabis collectives operating within the city.

"Once it was determined the basic issues here were not so much planning related but more related to permitting as they do for card games, card houses, those are typically taken care of by the city attorney's office or others," Redding senior planner Kent Manuel said.

Moreover, so much about medical marijuana collectives is in flux and working its way through the courts, Manuel said.

"There are certainly some sensitive cases working through the (state) Supreme Court, and the attorney's office is obviously better up to speed than perhaps planning staff," Manuel said.

Mayor Murray in Mount Shasta said it's not his place to interpret law.

"That will all get defined more clearly over time in the state Legislature and court system," Murray said. "But we do control zoning, permitting and other municipal regulations."

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