City imposes moratoriums on pot dispensary licenses

December 19, 2005

K. Kaufmann, Desert Sun

The possibility of a medical marijuana dispensary opening in a professional building on Highway 111 sparked a quick reaction from the Indian Wells City Council at its Dec. 15 meeting.

The council voted 4-1 for a 45-day moratorium on licensing dispensaries in the city, with Councilman Rob Bernheimer casting the opposing vote.

The proposal for the moratorium was added to the agenda for the Dec. 15 meeting after the city received an application for a business license for a dispensary Dec.12. The name on the application is Pierre Werner, and the address given for the dispensary is 74-900 Highway 111, Suite 212, in the Indian Wells Village shopping center.

The office at that address is empty, but other tenants in the building include lawyers, dentists and other professionals. Warren Properties, the leasing agent for the building, declined to comment.

Indian Wells Mayor Ed Monarch called the moratorium vote "a holding action so we could study (the issue).

"(The) reason for the moratorium was one of potential conflict between legislation of the state and the federal government," Monarch said. "We were unsure which way to go."

California voters passed Proposition 215, allowing medical marijuana use, in 1996. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Gonzales v. Raich last June that federal anti-drug laws take precedence over state initiatives. In response, state Attorney General Bill Lockyer has issued several statements upholding the California law. Bernheimer cited the law in explaining his "no" vote.

"I think it's a good idea for the city to take a look at providing standards for (dispensaries)," he said. "I don't think the city should be involved in overturning decisions (about medical marijuana's legality)."

Lanny Swerdlow of Palm Springs, director of the patient advocacy group Marijuana Antiprohibition Project, also criticized the council for voting on the moratorium without giving patients an opportunity to comment.

"They do have to recognize dispensaries should be allowed to exist because residents need access to this medicine," he said.

The Coachella Valley has two dispensaries in operation, Collective Apothecary of Palm Springs and Hempie's in Palm Desert. No city in the Coachella Valley currently has regulations on licensing dispensaries.

But the Dec. 15 vote put Indian Wells on the front line of one of California's most divisive issues. More than 20 cities have passed ordinances regulating dispensaries; 15 have banned them, and 48, including Indian Wells, have voted for moratoriums.

Six counties, including Riverside, also have moratoriums.

The Riverside County moratorium was passed in August - and then extended to April - to allow the county time to formulate regulations to allow medical marijuana use in the county. Riverside began issuing medical marijuana identification cards to patients Dec. 1.

Mark Balys, deputy planning director for Riverside County, said the county will be working on dispensary regulations after the first of the year. He hopes to meet with officials from Indian Wells and Palm Desert to help the cities formulate dispensary regulations that will be consistent with the county rules.

The Palm Desert City Council voted down a proposed ban on dispensaries in October.

Monarch said information on the county's policies "would be a great help to us. We need a clarification of what the law says."

But for advocates like Swerdlow, the moratorium is like "walking on eggshells.

"Riverside County is making very bold steps," he said. "We hope we (in the Coachella Valley) will continue to go in this direction."

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