Cannabis club sets sights on new site

March 27, 2006

, Fresno Bee

An organization that provides marijuana to patients for medical uses has set its sights on a new location north of downtown. Visalia Compassionate Caregivers, which began operating in 2004, has filed plans with the city to move from its downtown location to a small business complex on East Douglas Avenue, just west of Burke Street.

But the site's location could be a deal-breaker if an informal review by city officials this week determines that it fails to meet the requirements of a strict medical-marijuana ordinance adopted by the Visalia City Council late last year.

Representatives of Visalia's planning and building departments will review plans for the business this week. Wednesday's informal review is an early step in the process that Jeff Nunes, director of Visalia Compassionate Caregivers, must navigate to receive city permits to cultivate, process and dispense cannabis to registered patients.

"Much like any other proposal, it goes through the committee to see what regulations have to be applied," Visalia planning director Fred Brusuelas said.

Nunes is hopeful the site will meet with the city's approval.

"One person may see what we can't do, but I'm trying to see what we can do," he said. "You just sit down and read what they want us to comply with. ... The city gave us this zone; now we have to see where we can fit into this society."

Since last year, Nunes has run his nonprofit operation from a pair of upstairs offices in the 200 block of West Main Street. He serves about 400 patients who have received a doctor's written recommendation to use the drug to relieve chronic pain and symptoms of various illnesses.

Proposition 215, approved by 55.6% of California voters in November 1996, declared that ill people have the right to use marijuana for medical purposes when it is recommended by a doctor and allows possession or cultivation of marijuana by the patient or a "primary caregiver."

The city's ordinance, adopted in October, aims to help Visalia walk a tightrope between the state law, which allows the medical use of cannabis, and federal law, which considers the drug illegal for any use.

Besides provisions requiring a special medical-marijuana business license and outlawing use of medical marijuana outside of a private residence, Visalia's ordinance strictly limits where and how cultivation, processing and dispensing may take place within the city.

"The most important aspect of any proposal is location," Brusuelas said. "It's the location criteria in the ordinance that is critical."

The proposed Douglas Avenue site is zoned for service-commercial uses -- the same zone in which automotive repair, plumbing and air-conditioning shops may be located. The zone is fair game for medical-marijuana businesses, too.

"But if it doesn't meet the 1,000-foot rule, we can't approve it," Brusuelas added, referring to provisions prohibiting medical marijuana businesses from being located within 1,000 feet of "sensitive uses" such as schools, parks, churches or other places where children may gather.

The ban also applies within 500 feet of residential zones.

The city's Geographic Information System shows the proposed site at about 540 feet from apartments at the corner of Burke Street and Roosevelt Avenue. But only about 450 feet separate the site from Soroptimist Park, a short distance to the west on Douglas Avenue.

"Our staff will probably be doing measurements in the next day or so to verify the distance from those sensitive uses," Brusuelas said Monday.

Nunes said he's eager to hear the city's site evaluation.

"We have to meet the city's requirements," he said, "but we're adamant that a site has to work for patient relationships also."

"Trying to meet all of this in one place is a very big task," Nunes added. "If this isn't the right place, then we'll be happy to find somewhere else. If it is the right place, then it's time to get to work."

The reporter can be reached at or (559) 622-2410.

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