San Marcos bans medical marijuana dispensaries

February 16, 2006

David Sterrett, North County Times

The City Council voted Tuesday to ban businesses from distributing medical marijuana in San Marcos, becoming the first city in the county to introduce such a law. But the ordinance approved 4-0 by the council allows the Legal Ease Inc. dispensary on Rancho Santa Fe Road, which is the only location serving medical marijuana patients in North County, to stay open if it follows all applicable laws.

City and Sheriff's Department officials brought the proposed law to the council because of concerns about the safety and legality of medical marijuana dispensaries such as the one on Rancho Santa Fe Road.

"We are going to look at them very closely," Councilwoman Pia Harris-Ebert said. "We don't want to see the proliferation of these types of facilities in San Marcos, and if this one doesn't follow all the laws it also won't exist."

Laws about medical marijuana dispensaries are very unclear, however, said City Attorney Helen Holmes Peak.

The Controlled Substances Act passed by Congress in 1970 made it illegal to manufacture, distribute, posses or use marijuana in the United States. The act says marijuana has a high potential for abuse and no accepted use for medical treatment.

But California voters passed Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act, in 1996. The act recognizes a potential medical benefit of marijuana and allows people to use marijuana with a doctor's recommendation.

"I think this is a good compromise," Councilman Mike Preston said. "There will be one dispensary for people who have legitimate needs, but this will stop the proliferation of them in San Marcos."

Representatives of several regional groups such as Mothers Against Marijuana and the San Diego Prevention Coalition urged the council not to allow dispensaries because of health and safety risks associated with marijuana.

"Is this a business any city official would knowingly endorse?" said Rebecca Hernandez, who is with the prevention coalition.

But several North County residents who buy medical marijuana from the dispensary urged the council not to outlaw the businesses.

Escondido resident Joe Notar, 20, said he needs medical marijuana to deal with the pain and spasms after suffering a serious spinal cord injury.

"It's a good decision to leave Legal Ease in San Marcos," Notar said. "But I'm disappointed they won't let any new dispensaries open because if it is shut down there will be no place to go in North County."

Legal Ease received a business license in July 2005 from San Marcos and it sells several different types of marijuana and candy laced with marijuana at its store tucked into a small strip mail across from Alvin Dunn Elementary School.

The company, which has a couple of other locations in San Diego, only sells marijuana to patients with valid recommendations from a doctor, said Henry Friesen, the company's attorney.

"There is a need in the community and Legal Ease is serving the need," Friesen said. "We hope the city will work with Legal Ease to develop an appropriate regulatory scheme."

Several council members said they didn't approve of having the business near the school and had concerns about how the business is run.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency raided the dispensary in San Marcos in December along with 12 other locations in San Diego after undercover agents bought marijuana without valid prescriptions.

"In our view there is no medical marijuana, and it's illegal for any person or facility to serve or use marijuana," said Bill Sherman, an agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

He said the agency was investigating Legal Ease, and that the federal government was arresting and prosecuting people around the state for medical marijuana.

Statewide, 49 cities have stopped new medial marijuana facilities from opening, 15 cities have banned the businesses and 24 cities have established regulations for such operations but no city in San Diego addressed the issue before San Marcos, according to the medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access.

The group has filed lawsuits against several of the cities that have banned medical marijuana dispensaries and Peak, the city attorney, told the council "it is likely we will be sued."

The fear of a lawsuit was one reason Mayor Corky Smith, who missed the meeting to attend a friend's wedding, said earlier in the day on Tuesday that he didn't want the city to take any action.

"I don't think we should make any decision until the federal and state governments get their act together and decide what to do," Smith said. "I don't want to put our city in the middle of the state and federal government."

Councilman Jim Desmond said the issue needs to be decided at the state and federal level. But the dispensaries need to be closely monitored because it's hard enough to keep alcohol and cigarettes away from children, said Councilman Hal Martin.

The city will have a second reading of the law at the next council meeting scheduled for Feb. 28 and, if approved, the law will go into effect 30 days later.

"We'll probably be sucked into the other lawsuits in the state," City Manager Rick Gittings said. "But we would rather be ahead of the curve than the last ones that do something, because the last ones will end up with 15 dispensaries in their city."

Contact staff writer David Sterrett at (760) 761-4411 or

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