El Cerrito moves to ban cannabis clubs

June 19, 2006

Alan Lopez, ANG Newspapers

El Cerrito's City Council took the first step Monday toward banning medical marijuana facilities in the city, following police department report that compiled a list of problems with such facilities.

The 19-page report details a number of "secondary effects" related to cannabis clubs -- including robberies, assaults, burglaries, homicides and attempted homicides -- that have been documented in other cities.

Three residents from the Alta Punta neighborhood near the Del Norte BART station pleaded with the City Council to ban medical marijuana facilities because of the perception that the area already sees a great deal of crime.

"I can only imagine what will happen if a pot club is added to that vicinity," resident Bea O'Keefe said.

Last month, the council took a step toward approving a law that would have allowed such facilities to operate within three blocks on the west side of San Pablo Avenue near the Del Norte BART station.

In an about-face Monday night, it approved by a 3-1 vote the first reading of a law that would ban the facilities altogether. On July 17, it will consider approving a second reading of the law, which is required for it to become law.

Several residents urged the council Monday to go along with its original plan, saying the drug helped people cope with chronic pain. One man also downplayed reports that pot clubs have been linked to crime.

"We have crime anyway in El Cerrito if you read the police blotter," he said.

The recent police report includes a snippet of a news story detailing an "invasion-style" armed robbery in November 2003 at a medical marijuana club in Oakland's so-called Oaksterdam District. Four men took several ounces of marijuana and cash but no one was injured.

In Berkeley, dispensaries have been robbed several times since 2000.

In Santa Rosa, there was a homicide during a residential robbery where the suspects sought medical marijuana cultivated for a dispensary, according to the report.

Following the meeting, Police Chief Scott Kirkland said it was difficult to draw any conclusions because comprehensive and "before and after" statistics have not been collected.

"The purpose (of the report) was not to draw any conclusions of the right or wrongness of the topic," Kirkland said. "It was information."

The council ultimately voted to go with a ban, with Mayor Pro Tem Letitia Moore dissenting.

"I'd rather regulate than ban because I expect we will be sued," Moore said. "Not because we're doing anything different from other cities but this is the playing field right now."

"Where would you move it, what neighborhood would endorse it?" Councilwoman Jan Bridges asked. "I don't think (El Cerrito) Plaza neighbors would want it anymore than Del Norte would."

Councilman Bill Jones and Mayor Janet Abelson voted with Bridges but said they would reconsider the ban when the law governing medical marijuana is less murky.

Federal law prohibits use of marijuana for any reason, while state law allows it for medical use under Prop. 215, which California voters approved in 1996.

Several speakers said the subject required more discussion.

The council approved a 45-day moratorium on medical marijuana facilities in July 2004 after the city received inquiries for opening such a facility.

Two additional moratoriums the council approved expire July 19. State law prohibits further extensions.

Mikki Norris, a volunteer petitioner for Prop. 215, said there were more than 200 dispensaries in the state.

"They have been operating generally pretty well," she said. "They have had a few (crime) problems but a lot of businesses have had problems as well."

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

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