Oxnard to Consider Marijuana Dispensary

May 14, 2007

Charles Levin, Ventura County Star

A medical marijuana dispensary could fill a need in Ventura County for suffering patients while legally operating under state law and strict local regulations, an Oxnard city staff report says.

But the same report also says that crime increases in communities where dispensaries operate, and the establishments are still illegal under federal law, leaving many unanswered questions about oversight.

Oxnard's City Council will consider the report at 7 tonight at City Hall, 305 W. Third St.

No vote is required. But city officials want feedback from the council on whether to pursue drafting a law to allow a dispensary.

The city began exploring the issue in November 2005 after a Simi Valley man who uses medical marijuana asked to open a dispensary in Oxnard.

Council members approved an interim ban on such establishments and extended it through this November while city officials examined the pros and cons of an ordinance regulating dispensaries.

Interest in dispensaries is linked to the California Compassionate Use Act, approved by state voters in 1996. The law allows people to use marijuana with a doctor's authorization for illnesses such as cancer, AIDS and anorexia.

More than 200 dispensaries operate statewide, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Ventura County has none so far. Simi Valley enacted a permanent ban on them in December.

In 2003, state lawmakers approved a bill that established guidelines for growing plants and a voluntary identification card system for medical marijuana users. As of April, 26 counties have issued a total of 12,305 cards, according to the state Department of Health.

Neither the 1996 initiative nor the 2003 bill, however, provides clear or strong regulations, those on both sides of the debate say. And the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal drug laws making all marijuana illegal take precedence over the state initiative.

A San Diego judge, however, upheld the state law in December. San Diego County, which sued over the law, has appealed the case.

City officials left to wonder

All this has left Oxnard city officials befuddled, and tonight's report suggests that they're not settled on the matter.

On one hand, the report says that allowing dispensaries would protect the city from lawsuits by people who believe that their rights under the Compassionate Use Act are being denied. Also, the establishments would fill a need in the city and county.

At least six people have inquired about establishing a dispensary, the report says. Medical marijuana users have testified about its benefits at city hearings, Susan Martin, Oxnard's planning manager, said Monday.

Also, the city could effectively regulate dispensaries, says the report, which cites the San Francisco Bay area city of Albany as an example.

On the other hand, crime is up in some cities where dispensaries operate, according to the Oxnard report.

Legitimacy an issue

Meanwhile, Ventura County has not adopted the ID card program, which leaves cities in the lurch when it comes to who is a legitimate user, Martin said. Just what constitutes a doctor's note is also troublesome, she said.

"It could be a letter or it could be a piece of paper," Martin said. "How do you determine if that's a legitimate note?"

The report also raises questions about where dispensaries get their marijuana and the cost of regulatory oversight.

"The real issue here is the conflict between federal law and state law," Assistant City Attorney Jim Rupp said Monday.

Lisa Schwarz, a former registered nurse who operates the Ventura County Alliance of Medical Marijuana Users, called the criticisms minor. Some dispensaries have problems, Schwarz said, blaming greedy "pot-trepreneurs" who operate them as "speak-easies."

"The only way it's going to happen is if it's regulated," said Schwarz, of Camarillo. The city could tax medical marijuana and spend the money on law enforcement and regulatory costs, she said.

"It should be for qualified patients, not college students with insomnia and stress," she said.



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