San Francisco adopts rules to regulate pot clubs

November 15, 2005

Lisa Leff, Associated Press

San Francisco supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to adopt regulations governing medical marijuana clubs after allegations of abuse at several of the city's 35 facilities.

The proposed rules, crafted with input from Mayor Gavin Newsom, require pot dispensary operators to apply for permits that include criminal and employment background checks. Club owners would have to pay $6,610 for a permit along with $3,100 for a business license.

The regulations would govern where and how the clubs could do business, prohibiting them from opening in industrial or residential areas. The zoning guidelines would prevent dispensaries from operating within 500 feet of schools or within

1,000 feet if pot smoking is allowed on the premises.

The crackdown came as elected officials in this liberal city grappled with how to balance their compassion for patients who smoke pot to ease pain with the logistical realities of an unregulated industry that deals in a federally illegal product. Until now, the dispensaries have operated without government oversight.

Noise, traffic and odor complaints from neighborhood groups, along with the realization last spring that a pot dispensary was getting to open in a city-operated residential hotel for substance abusers, led the mayor and Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi to step in.

"There is always a fine line — do you restrict or just allow — and we erred on the side of allowing," Newsom said. "We said to the clubs, 'Do what you do and do it appropriately,' but they got a little out of control."

California is one of 10 states in which medical marijuana use is legal. Under the Compassionate Use Act approved by voters in 1996, people with a doctor's recommendation are supposed to be able to smoke pot without fear of state or local prosecution.

In June, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that medical marijuana patients could be prosecuted for illegal pot possession under federal law, regardless of state ordinances.

The San Francisco permits will include a bold-faced disclaimer: "Issuance of this permit by the City and County of San Francisco is not intended to and does not authorize the violation of state or federal laws."

When the city started crafting the regulations last spring, San Francisco was home to an estimated 40 dispensaries, far more than any other California city. Since the state's voters adopted the act in 1996, the San Francisco Department of Public Health has issued identification cards to nearly 8,000 people who claimed they needed the drug to ease symptoms for afflictions ranging from AIDS to arthritis.

Mirkarimi, a member of the Green Party, said his goal in crafting the new rules was to make sure that irresponsible clubs did not jeopardize the rights of patients or invite federal drug agents to shut down dispensaries that operated legitimately. Officials estimated that the zoning rules and fees would probably force a handful of clubs out of business.

"There have been days when I would have been OK not being the front man trying to push this, but what caused me not to abort the process was I couldn't allow neglect or indifference threaten the very gains the medical marijuana movement has made," he said.

Under the new rules, clubs that were operating as of April 1, when the city imposed a moratorium on new clubs, would have 18 months to obtain a permit. Their applications then would have to be approved by the city's planning director with input from the police on the adequacy of proposed security measures and the backgrounds of the people running the clubs.

Kris Hermes, legal director for the medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, said after the vote that most patients and dispensary owners were generally pleased with San Francisco's regulations and regard them as a stamp of approval from the city.

"It will send a message to cities and counties throughout the state that are currently deliberating this issue that now is the time to act, follow San Francisco's lead," Hermes said.

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