Tulare Co. wants more data on marijuana dispensaries

November 29, 2006

Sarah Jimenez, Fresno Bee

VISALIA — Tulare County planning commissioners said Wednesday they needed more expert information and a review of similar ordinances in Visalia and Tulare before they would consider an ordinance regulating where medical marijuana dispensaries can be located.

In a 6-0 vote, the Planning Commission decided to continue a public hearing on a draft ordinance that outlines where medical marijuana dispensaries can operate in unincorporated areas of the county.

The next public hearing is scheduled Dec. 13 at 10 a.m.

The issue drew a small crowd at Wednesday's meeting. Only two people spoke in favor of an ordinance. Both thanked Tulare County for carefully studying the issue before making a decision.

No one spoke against the ordinance.

Under the proposed ordinance, dispensaries would be limited to five nonresidential land-use zones and could not be within 1,000 feet of each other. They also could not be located within 1,000 feet of schools, day-care centers, parks or other areas where minors gather.

In addition, all dispensary windows must be shielded to protect medical marijuana patients and the public, and outdoor signs could not be obtrusive.

A report prepared by county Resource Management Agency staff recommended commissioners delay making a decision because county counsel had not reviewed the ordinance.

California voters approved Proposition 215 — also known as the Compassionate Use Act — in 1996, allowing patients or their caregivers to possess or cultivate marijuana for medical purposes if they have a doctor's written recommendation for the drug.

But under federal law, marijuana remains illegal, even for medical purposes. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that federal agents can enforce the federal prohibition in California or other states with medical marijuana laws.

Tulare County supervisors first took up the issue of dispensaries more than nine months ago. They approved a moratorium on the opening of such facilities until a permanent solution could be created.

On Wednesday, Commissioner John Elliott asked for information on how similar ordinances in Tulare and Visalia are working out. Both cities approved land-use regulations on dispensaries last year.

Commissioner John Millwee questioned whose responsibility it is to make sure someone doesn't visit more than one dispensary and obtain more medical marijuana than allowed.

"That's what worries me ... the abuse of it," he said.

Two medical marijuana advocates assured the commission they wanted to see dispensaries work closely with law enforcement and government officials to prevent abuse.

Rick Morse, president of the Tulare County chapter of Americans for Safe Access, said the county and medical marijuana advocates were close to a compromise on the ordinance.

But he is concerned about "blanket buffer zones" that make many areas unavailable to dispensaries. Morse said he'd also like to see the county consider allowing patients to smoke at dispensaries, which is not allowed under Tulare's and Visalia's ordinances.

Jeff Nunes, who operates the nonprofit Visalia Compassionate Caregivers, said he expected the commission to postpone the public hearing.

"We don't want this to be rushed in any way, shape or form," he said.

The reporter can be reached at sjimenez@fresnobee.com or (559) 622-2413.

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