Placerville moves to keep its medicinal pot ordinance

May 12, 2006

Cathy Locke, Sacramento Bee

Placerville City Council members, faced with a conflict between state and federal laws governing the medical use of marijuana, say they'll cast their lot with the state.

The council this week took a preliminary step to retain, but modify, an ordinance adopted in 2004 allowing medical marijuana dispensaries to operate in certain areas of the city under certain conditions. The modifications set limits on how many dispensaries could operate and under what conditions.

The action was unanimous, despite concerns voiced by police Chief George Nielsen that Placerville could become a lightning rod for the issue.

The council on May 23 will consider allowing a dispensary to open on the city's Main Street.

Council members indicated they were influenced as much by suffering they have witnessed among friends and relatives as they were by the testimony of dispensary advocates.

"As you get older, you know people with diseases who suffer terribly," said Councilwoman Marian Washburn. "So that is probably what I get down to after considering all the other components."

Councilwoman Roberta Colvin recalled an acquaintance who died five years ago. The woman considered it ridiculous that she had to pay for an expensive prescription drug, Marinol, containing a synthetic form of the active ingredient in marijuana, when she could have obtained marijuana for much less, Colvin said.

John Driscoll, city manager and attorney, in January recommended repealing the 2004 ordinance and banning dispensaries. He cited a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that federal laws prohibiting cultivation and use of marijuana trumped state laws permitting the practices for medical purposes.

The council, however, directed staff members and dispensary advocates to try to fashion an ordinance that would reduce risks to the public and patients.

Driscoll said he and the police chief met several times with dispensary proponents to review the 2004 ordinance. Proposed modifications, he said, include changing references to "marijuana" in the ordinance to the more scientific term "cannabis."

In response to concerns about a proliferation of dispensaries if Placerville were one of a few jurisdictions in the region allowing such operations, the revised ordinance would permit no more than two in the city.

In addition, Driscoll said, dispensaries would have to be nonprofit operations offering no products other than cannabis.

Permits would have to be renewed annually and would be subject to review by the police chief. If problems arose, the police chief could revoke the permit. Though the dispensary operator could appeal the revocation, suspension of the permit would be immediate, Driscoll said.

In a written report to the council, Driscoll said recent statistics indicate 23 cities and three counties in the state have ordinances providing for the operation of medical marijuana dispensaries. Sixteen cities and two counties have outright bans, he said, while the majority of jurisdictions have either a moratorium on such activities or no provisions at all.

Driscoll advised the council that it was better to have an ordinance regulating the dispensaries than ignoring the issue. "Having nothing on the books is not the best way," he said.

The council heard comments from more than a half-dozen people who favored allowing dispensaries. They included Jen McGill, a Placerville resident and mother, who said, "I'm here to give a different face to what you might think is the typical marijuana user."

McGill said she uses marijuana to relieve migraine headaches and currently travels 60 miles to obtain it from a dispensary. "Wouldn't it be great if Placerville became the compassionate city?" she asked.

But Kenneth Clark, identifying himself as a combat veteran who suffers from neurological disorders, urged the council to ban dispensaries, arguing that marijuana is a "gateway" drug that leads to use of other drugs. "I feel very strongly about this," said Clark, the only speaker opposing the ordinance.

The council will consider adopting the amended ordinance at its May 23 meeting. Driscoll said the agenda also will include a request by Stephen Williams of the El Dorado Pain Reduction Center to establish a dispensary at 645 Main St.

The council in November 2004 approved a variance to allow Williams to operate a dispensary on Main Street. It stipulated, however, that the U.S. Supreme Court or Congress must first determine that the federal government could not interfere with dispensaries permitted under state law, or marijuana must be reclassified as a regulated rather than a prohibited substance.

Williams has asked the council to remove the condition so he can open a dispensary.

"I plan to keep it very low-profile," he said. "It won't be easily identified."

Driscoll said the city would bear no liability in allowing the operation, adding that those who operate dispensaries do so at their own risk.

For the operators, he said, the specter of federal prohibitions remains. "It is something that is looming out there and will continue to loom for a period of time," Driscoll said.


About the writer: The Bee's Cathy Locke can be reached at (916) 608-7451 or

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