El Cerrito leans toward cannabis club approval

May 16, 2006

Alan Lopez, Contra Costa Times

The El Cerrito Planning Commission will consider recommending changes next month to the city's zoning ordinance that would allow a medical marijuana dispensary to operate in a three-block area on the city's north side.

At its Monday night meeting, the City Council approved the first reading of an ordinance requiring a use permit for such facilities. The council will have to approve a second reading of the ordinance as well as the recommended zoning changes before a dispensary can operate.

Under the proposed zoning changes that will go to the Planning Commission, dispensaries could open within three blocks along San Pablo Avenue between Knott Avenue and Rose Street.

The council moved forward with the dispensary regulations as a compromise between state and federal laws, which are at odds over the legality of medical marijuana.

"The state of the law is still not certain," City Attorney Janet Coleson said.

Medical marijuana is legal under Prop. 215, the "Compassionate Use Act," which California voters approved in 1996. However, federal law classifies marijuana as an illegal drug with no medical use.

In response to inquiries for opening a medical marijuana facility, the El Cerrito council adopted moratoriums, the third of which is set to expire July 19. State law prohibits the city from putting off the issue any longer.

Other cities are also grappling with the issue.

In early May, San Pablo extended its cannabis club moratorium for an additional year. Hercules banned medical marijuana facilities the same month. Dublin is headed in that direction.

Albany is considering adopting an ordinance that would allow one dispensary in that city. The council, which recently approved an additional one-year moratorium, will likely place the issue before voters in November for an advisory vote, Albany City Attorney Robert Zweben said.

The El Cerrito ordinance would require dispensaries to operate between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.; and would prohibit cultivation or consumption on site.

According to the proposed zoning changes to be considered by the Planning Commission, medical marijuana dispensaries will not operate within 1,200 feet of each other; within 350 feet of any residential districts; within 500 feet of a school, or a religious or community facility; or within 300 feet of any park.

Reach Alan Lopez at 510-243-3578 or e-mail alopez1@cctimes.com.

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