San Francisco Mayor Backs Medical Marijuana

August 10, 2005

Nathan Riley, Gay City News

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom last week said he opposes placing a limit on the number of medical marijuana dispensaries in the city, but insisted that a comprehensive regulatory scheme should be enacted by this fall.

Regulation of medical marijuana is necessary, the mayor told activists at a meeting at San Francisco’s Jewish Community Center, but it could be that city’s best line of defense against the “possibility of using” program “in a war against the city.

” He explained that the city has so far been unprepared to defend its management of the program; at one point, his administration didn’t know how many dispensaries there are, where they are located and who was operating them. As criticism of the medical marijuana program mounted over the past year, and the federal government has sought to strengthen its hand in opposing the emergence of such efforts, San Francisco was unable to gauge the successes and failures of the program.

Doctors recommended use of marijuana to ease pain and stimulate appetite among a wide range of chronically ill people, including many living with HIV.

Currently there are more than 40 dispensaries and 7,000 registered medical marijuana patients in San Francisco.

Newsom’s promise to make the medical marijuana that city’s best line of defense workable was made in a July 26 meeting sponsord by the Drug Policy Alliance and the San Francisco Medial Society before television and newspaper reporters. His speech drew cheers from a standing-room-only crowd of doctors, lawyers, pot lovers and community activists. The proposed city regulations would require background checks on any applicants seeking to open a Medical Cannabis Dispensary, as defined under California law. Those checks, Newsom said, would inhibit individuals with serious criminal records or organized crime ties from distributing medical marijuana.

The city’s Board of Supervisors is drafting lengthy regulations that would require each dispensary to pay a steep one-time fee to cover the costs of the background investigation, and then an annual charge. The measures project an initial license cost of $7,400 and a yearly fee $2,200. No one objected to these expenses because the legislation would regularize operation and oversight of the dispensaries.

The public embrace of marijuana sales for medical purposes by San Francisco and California politicians generally has no corresponding push in New York politics. A maximum purchase of one pound of marijuana is being proposed by some lawmakers in San Francisco. On-premise smoking will permitted at some dispensaries, but there is debate about whether facilities can be located with 500 to 1,000 feet of schools. There is also debate about the maximum density of dispensary locations. Everybody on the Board of Supervisors agrees that San Francisco should have the facilities, but some parents and supervisors have sought to cap the total number of dispensaries in the city at eight. The mayor opposed this restriction.

The mayor emphasized that he strongly supported drug law reform.

“If everyone thought my career was ruined by gay marriage, they should go back to the tapes and look at my comments on the war on drugs,” Newsom said.

The San Francisco mayor rocketed to national fame when he allowed gay marriage licenses to be issued in the late winter of 2004 even though California law prohibited such unions. The State Supreme Court a year ago rejected his argument that the marriages were legal because the state marriage law violated the California Constitution. The initial San Francisco marriages were thus annulled by the courts, while a more conventional challenge to the constitutionality of the state law proceeds.

The objective of the medical marijuana regulations, Newsom said, was to establish a system of well-regulated, not-for profit dispensaries where the city could exercise sufficient control to move the issue “out of the headlines and back where it belongs in the hands of the health community.”

Three dispensaries were recently raided by federal law enforcement, and the mayor said the regulations would help make the program work.

“We want to lead by example,” he said.

The other speaker at the Jewish Community Center on July 26 was Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. He warned that capping the number of dispensaries would make it “easier for the feds to prosecute” and increase tensions with the neighborhood because a limited number of facilities would inevitably attract more attention and handle more customers.

Nadelman compared the dispensaries to the early day of the Dutch drug reform effort.

“No one even thought of the coffee shops,” he said of current attitudes toward locales where marijuana is sold in the Netherlands without threat of arrest. At first there was widespread concern about the shops, he explained, then a growing acceptance that led to an “informal understanding between police and the clubs and the situation stabilized.” He predicted that medical marijuana sales will also be marked by such a gradual shift toward public acceptance.



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