Dispensary home divides leaders

August 23, 2006

Steve Heisler, Contra Costa Times

One measure coming up on November's general election ballot is forcing Albany City Council members to balance medical needs and potential crime.

The measure -- which solicits opinions on establishing a single medical marijuana dispensary in Albany -- is also causing city leaders to take sides when it comes to state and federal law.

Albany Planning and Zoning Manager Jeff Bond helped draw up the ordinance, which attempts to define a business that does not fit neatly within retail or commercial uses.

"In most communities there isn't a good fit for this," Bond said. "There are concerns by some in the community and also recognition in the community that this is an important health matter. It's trying to find the balance between people who need access to a dispensary and putting it in the right place where there won't be any potential law enforcement issues."

As currently defined, any dispensary would be a set distance from schools and parks and always be in a commercial district, Bond said. It also would not allow for use on-site, one reason that Councilman Robert Lieber favors it.

"I think that's an important distinction," Lieber said. "You don't go to a pharmacy and say, 'Hey I got my penicillin, can I have a glass of water?' It's not a testing ground."

Nearly 80 percent of Albany voters favored Proposition 215, better known as the Compassionate Use Act, in 1996, said Lieber, a registered nurse who said he has seen first-hand the need for medical marijuana in critical settings.

"I have seen where marijuana has helped many people and helped them to not suffer, so in that sense, I support it," he said.

Lieber's support, which goes along with state law supporting the use of medical marijuana, flies in the face of a recent Supreme Court ruling. The federal judgment is the main reason why Albany Councilmember Robert Good said he favors letting voters decide the issue.

"The Supreme Court has reinforced the idea that this is contrary to federal law so rather than have the City Council put in something against federal law, I'd feel much more comfortable giving the choice to the voters," he said. "Federal law does trump everything in principle."

The vote would culminate a debate that has been ongoing since a license application was filed nearly two years ago, Lieber said. If approved, the dispensary would be regulated by the City Council.

Potential sites include San Pablo Avenue and Solano Avenue, Bond said. At least two cities that have dispensaries were looked at as role models by Mayor Alan Maris.

"We didn't look at any particular city as a role model, we looked at a lot to determine what does and doesn't work and what would work for Albany," Bond said.

The measure should pass, Lieber said, because he hopes to add a provision that if a dispensary doesn't work smoothly, it can be promptly shut down. If it does work, it will continue a tradition, he said.

"Albany has a long history about caring for the sick and suffering," he said. "This affirms a belief that a person's private health care matters should be decided by an individual and his or her physician."

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