Marijuana cooperatives proposal advances

July 25, 2006

Kimberly Trone, The Press-Enterprise (CA)

A proposal allowing medical marijuana cooperatives to operate with a special permit in commercial office and retail zones won the unanimous endorsement Wednesday of the Riverside County Planning Commission.

The plan, however, was criticized as "100 percent unacceptable and absurd" by Lanny Swerdlow, a medical marijuana advocate.

Instead, Swerdlow said, county planners were supposed to have drafted an ordinance that dealt with the operation of dispensaries, which are locations where marijuana is sold to patients, often by a third party.

Cooperatives are locations where medical marijuana patients grow plants and usually share them among themselves. The ordinance specifically bans the cultivation of plants in cooperatives, which Swerdlow said violates a 1996 voter-approved state initiative allowing the use of medical marijuana.

"This is what happens when they do not involve medical marijuana patients and support groups in their discussions," said Swerdlow, who did not attend the commission's meeting because he was unaware the item was scheduled.

Senior County Planner Mark Balys said late Wednesday that the ordinance was drafted using the language of the state law, but that there was not really a difference between dispensaries and cooperatives.

The ordinance must still win approval from the Riverside County Board of Supervisors, which has been divided over medical marijuana and whether county government is required to uphold the state law allowing its use.

In December, the county public health department began processing state-issued medical marijuana identification cards. So far, about 250 cards have been issued to qualified patients and 22 cards to primary caregivers in the county.

Under Wednesday's proposal, only patients or caregivers possessing the card would be allowed to purchase marijuana from a cooperative.

Supervisor Roy Wilson said he was pleased the ordinance was moving to the board, which has imposed a moratorium on medical marijuana outlets in the unincorporated areas. The moratorium expires Sept. 28.

"We need to have some controls so they don't pop up everywhere," said Wilson, adding that he hopes the ordinance will serve as a model for cities that are trying to determine the best way to regulate dispensaries and cooperatives.

Corona, Palm Desert and Palm Springs each have at least one dispensary operating within city limits and elected leaders have struggled over ways to curtail their numbers.

Other local governments like Lake Elsinore and Temecula have banned them outright.

Supervisor Jeff Stone, a pharmacist, said it would be difficult for him to support any business that distributes medical marijuana, which he believes is against the law and too loosely regulated by state rules.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal law enforcement has authority to prosecute individuals who are in possession of medical marijuana.

On Wednesday, Stone vowed to write stringent rules.

The state Board of Equalization also is wrestling with ways to deal with the financial issues that have arisen surrounding dispensaries, even though the board's position is that they are unlawful, Bill Leonard, a member of the board, said in an interview earlier this year.

The board now allows dispensaries to get a seller's permit, which allows them to collect a sales tax without indicating whether their products are lawful to sell.

Reach Kimberly Trone at 951-368-9456 or ktrone@PE.com



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