Medical marijuana dispensary in limbo

March 29, 2006

Mark Baylis, Lompoc Record

The future of the only medical marijuana dispensary between Santa Barbara and Morro Bay is up in the air after Buellton's recent decision to temporarily ban such establishments from the city.

The City Council approved a 45-day moratorium March 23 that bars so-called “cannabis clubs” from operating within Buellton. The ordinance gives the city time to review both legal concerns surrounding medical marijuana as well as city zoning issues before voting to extend or lift the ban.

Hezekiah Inc. has been operating as a dispensary within the city since last year. It formed in January 2005, according to state records, but had not registered with Buellton as a business, city officials said.

Officials said they weren't even aware the dispensary existed until recently.

City planners are drawing up an ordinance that, if approved, would extend the ban for one year. The City Council could vote on the ordinance as early as April 27.

Meanwhile, a city official who briefly met with a Hezekiah representative for the first time Tuesday said city staff won't interfere with the business before the council votes on an ordinance.

“Right now we're not doing anything. We need to take a look at it and hopefully on the 27th we'll have a decision on whether it's OK or has to shut down,” said city Planning Director Marc Bierdzinski.

Officials at Hezekiah Inc. declined to comment for this story.

Buellton was the last of a string of Central Coast cities that have passed ordinances in the last year banning medical marijuana dispensaries from their cities either temporarily or permanently. Solvang, Lompoc, Santa Maria, Pismo Beach, Grover Beach and San Luis Obispo have all passed similar ordinances.

Just this month, Solvang approved a moratorium and Lompoc extended its moratorium for an additional year.

The Buellton City Council voted on the issue out of concern that suppliers banned from other cities may set up shop in Buellton. Council members expressed concern after hearing during public comment last week that people from Santa Maria and even someone from the Palms Springs area were coming to Buellton to fill marijuana prescriptions.

“I think people want to take care of their own and do what's right from a medical side,” said Councilman Russell Hicks.

Hezekiah is the only known medical marijuana dispensary in north Santa Barbara County. Santa Barbara has at least four dispensaries. A Santa Barbara city official said his city treats the dispensaries like pharmacies for zoning purposes and leaves the legal controversies surrounding the outlets to other agencies.

Morro Bay is one of the few Central Coast cities that permits dispensaries to operate in the city. Central Coast Compassionate Caregivers left Atascadero after the City Council there voted it out and is expected to re-open in Morro Bay by next week.

In 1996 California voters passed Proposition 215, called the Compassionate Use Initiative, which allows marijuana to be used legally by qualified patients who receive a prescription from a doctor.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in June that California law does not supersede federal law, which bans marijuana for any use. Since then, federal DEA agents have periodically raided various cannabis clubs, particularly in the Bay Area.

Medical marijuana dispensaries remain in the gray area they have occupied since voters passed Proposition 215 in 1996. The act permits qualifying patients to possess amounts of marijuana but does not address the issue of dispensaries.

The Santa Barbara County Public Health Department operates a medical marijuana identification card program in conjunction with the California Public Health Department, which helps law enforcement officers verify whether a person in possession of marijuana is using it for medical purposes.

The card has been issued to 426 patients in Santa Barbara County, including 184 in North County cities. That number includes 87 patients in Santa Maria, 55 in Lompoc and 18 in the Santa Ynez Valley, according to the county public health department.

Mark Baylis can be reached at 739-2218 or mbaylis@lompocrecord.com.



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