Medical pot, done right

November 14, 2005

Ross Mirkarimi (OpEd), San Francisco Bay Guardian

OVER THE NEXT few weeks, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors will vote on whether to pass legislation I authored to regulate medical cannabis dispensaries in a manner that puts the interests of patients first, balances the concerns of neighborhoods, and moves us beyond the indifference and neglect that put the clubs at risk of intervention by federal authorities.

San Francisco's first-of-its-kind legislation would represent a national model for how a progressive city can establish reasonable public health and zoning oversight that avoids being unduly onerous or punitive while assuring patients safe access to medical cannabis.

While this legislation is supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, the Drug Policy Alliance, Americans for Safe Access, and Assembly member Mark Leno, it's encountered some opposition from those who feel these reforms are too lenient or too restrictive.

For example, some people would like nothing more than a Draconian, arbitrarily imposed cap on the number of dispensaries – or even an outright ban. A ban is crazy.

A cap would make sense if the City and County of San Francisco were to assume the administration of medical cannabis through its public health network, similar to the Santa Cruz model, but due to legal barriers this is an improbable path for now. There are some pot club representatives who want regulations as long as they don't apply to their own operations.

You've heard of Big Business and Big Oil; now comes Big Pot – a growing cottage industry that operates in a quasi-illegal climate due to misguided federal law but can benefit from being in a Proposition 215 state like California if a municipality fails to defend patients whose needs are exploited for profit.

As a longtime proponent of the decriminalization of marijuana, I expect medical cannabis to be accessible and dirt cheap – or free – for qualified patients. As long as medical cannabis is administered in the shadows of an unregulated environment, we're leaving the door open for exploitation and profiteering, and, at the same time, we stall a movement that is poised to challenge the illegality of marijuana altogether.

My legislation attempts to move the ball forward: It enacts a number of zoning restrictions and guidelines for existing and new dispensaries. Based on the current population of approximately 35 clubs, 6 would likely need to relocate within an 18-month period. That's relocate – not close. New dispensaries would face a Public Health and Planning Department hearing to make sure their applications conform to city policies. The clubs and harm reduction centers would have to comply with disability access laws too.

I wanted to pursue legislation that would treat these outlets like pharmacies, but there are legal barriers to that. So I incorporated a provision that would allow up to two 24-hour dispensaries to operate in the city, subject to regulatory approval. My bill also sets possession and sales guidelines for dispensaries, caregivers, and patients. Cannabis dispensaries would be allowed to have up to 99 immature plants while patients and caregivers could have 24. Any patient can possess as much as eight ounces of dry pot and can have as much as one ounce for sale.

It's worth noting that my initial legislation was met with protest by more conservative leaders, who professed their support for medical cannabis as long as it wasn't in their hood. I rebuffed that approach: The city owes it to medical cannabis dispensaries – and, more important, to the patients they serve – to be more accommodating, rather than less, so enabling them to come into compliance.

Working together we've made enormous strides, not simply toward enacting a thoughtful policy, but in changing the terms of the debate toward one that focuses on the interests of patients while legitimizing the need to protect the medical marijuana infrastructure and enfranchising neighborhoods who feel dismissed – all this, while "big brother" looms.

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