Cities struggle with medical marijuana

January 10, 2007

Alison Hewitt, San Gabriel Valley Tribune (CA)

It's been 10 years since voters made medical marijuana legal in California, but in many San Gabriel Valley cities it has been a matter of months since officials began to consider how to regulate marijuana dispensaries.

Called everything from "pot clubs" to "compassionate collectives," depending on who's talking, they are banned in several local cities, allowed in few, and temporarily not allowed in many cities where officials are still deciding whether to bar them or embrace them. Most cities in the San Gabriel Valley region do not currently allow dispensaries - Diamond Bar is a notable exception, where one dispensary is allowed. Whittier also permits them.

Local cities' attention to the issue puts them ahead of the bulk of California cities, according to the medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access.

"The vast majority of cities in Southern California haven't acted, so there's nothing in those cities restricting safe access," said ASA's Los Angeles County field coordinator, Chris Fusco. "A recent proliferation of dispensaries in Southern California means probably people have been going to city halls," causing the recent flurry of bans and moratoriums, he added.

Inaction has resulted in unwelcome surprises in some municipalities, where dispensaries popped up before the local government developed any way to regulate them. It's a dilemma that Los Angeles County faced in unincorporated Hacienda Heights. The county has since developed a permit process, which legalized the pot collectives in unincorporated areas in June 2006.

In part to avoid similar surprises, many local cities have enacted moratoriums that bar dispensaries from opening until officials write new codes to regulate them. Baldwin Park, Rosemead and South El Monte are among the few cities that have not tackled the issue in some form. Even Rosemead is leaning toward a ban, said Deputy City Manager Oliver Chi.

"There's a negative perception to having a drug dispensary in the community," Chi said.

Beyond that, many cities are concerned about breaking the law.

"What the local agencies are grappling with is this discrepancy between federal and state law," said Ray Hamada, the planning director in Irwindale, which has a moratorium. The problem, he explained, is that while California voters legalized medical marijuana with Proposition 215 in November 1996, federal law still bans all marijuana use.

Monterey Park's city manager, Chris Jeffers, said his city had a moratorium for the same reason. The city is leaning toward a ban in order to comply with federal law, but hasn't finished studying the issue, he said.

"Ultimately, we want to make sure that whatever we do doesn't put us in anybody's cross hairs," Jeffers added.

County Supervisor Don Knabe, whose district includes the dispensary in Hacienda Heights, said a ban would have been his first choice.

"But the legal opinion that we got was that we couldn't ban them," Knabe said. "So it's not about whether medical marijuana is right or wrong. The voters said they wanted it, and it's our job in local government to ensure that it's dispensed in the right places, to keep our neighborhoods and children safe."

But scattered cities - including Azusa, Covina, Pasadena and Walnut - have banned the dispensaries outright, citing federal law. Knabe sympathized, saying that while medical marijuana could be useful to people with serious medical problems, he would have preferred a way to allow pharmacies to dispense the product instead of neighborhood dispensaries. However, banning the dispensaries was playing with fire, he said. Pasadena is already being sued.

"Those cities could be subject to litigation if a dispensary wants to locate in the community," he said. "We were told we wouldn't win that one."

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