Marijuana clubs question ethics of city's order to close

May 18, 2006

Tom Lochner, ANG Newspapers

With the crafting of a medical marijuana regulating ordinance stalled, the Richmond City Attorney's office has ordered the immediate closure of two cannabis clubs, the only ones known to operate in the city.

One, Natural Remedies Health Collective on Macdonald Avenue, promptly closed. The other, Holistic Solutions on Hilltop Mall Road, remained open Thursday. Owner Ken Estes said he hopes to persuade Richmond officials and council members that his business benefits both patients and the city at large.

In a cease-and-desist order dated May 16, Assistant City Attorney Trisha Aljoe told Natural Remedies owner Linda Jackson that failure to comply will result in the filing of criminal charges. Estes said he received a similar letter. With no land-use standards permitting medical marijuana dispensaries in the city, the letter reads, "your continued marijuana operation is in clear violation of the Richmond Municipal Code and constitutes both a public nuisance per se, as well as a criminal misdemeanor."

Jackson closed her shop Wednesday, but on Thursday, she questioned the legality and ethics of the city's order.

"This is taking away my livelihood and putting my patients in harm's way," said Jackson. She also questioned how the city could prosecute her, because no city law specifically addresses cannabis clubs, which are legal under California law -- unless the city decides to enforce the federal law.

In 1996, the state's voters approved marijuana for medical use on the recommendation of a doctor. The federal government, however, considers marijuana an illegal drug, with no medical use.

Aljoe did not return calls Thursday. The city's administrative chief, Janet Schneider, said the city attorney's office takes the stand that cannabis clubs are illegal since the city code does not explicitly permit them. Moreover, she said, the city's zoning ordinance rules out unlawful activities in general.

Richmond's legal stand differs from that of some other Contra Costa cities, which passed urgency moratoriums on the opening of cannabis clubs. Those cities, among them Antioch, Oakley, Pinole and San Pablo, reasoned that without a moratorium, their cities lacked the legal mechanism to keep cannabis clubs from opening absent any reference to them in their municipal codes.

Richmond, too, once had a moratorium; it lapsed in October. A draft ordinance that would limit cannabis clubs to certain commercial areas bounced among the Planning Commission, Public Safety Committee, City Council and city staff for months. On Thursday, the committee declined to adopt a recommendation by the city staff to declare cannabis clubs a "non-permitted use" and referred the matter to the city council to consider as part of a general plan overhaul.

Police Chief Chris Magnus said Thursday that cannabis clubs are a drain on police resources. But earlier this year, Richmond Police spokesman Lt. Mark Gagan quipped that things were so quiet at Natural remedies he had virtually forgotten it existed.

Magnus said there was a burglary at Natural Remedies in May 2005. But Jackson said that occurred under a previous owner. And at Holistic solutions, Magnus said, Richmond officers observed a steady stream of young people coming and going, causing him to doubt they were there for medical reasons. But Estes said many younger people use medical marijuana for pain resulting from injuries and that police should come inside to observe how he checks out his patients.

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