Cities racing to set rules

September 03, 2007

Harrison Sheppard, Daily Bulletin (Inland Valley, CA)

SACRAMENTO - More than a decade after California voters passed legalization of medical marijuana, an explosion of dispensaries and patients has cities and counties scrambling to regulate the operations.

Hundreds of other cities up and down California have no regulations at all on medical-marijuana dispensaries, including at least 28 where clinics or delivery services are operating, according to an analysis.

Law-enforcement officials said that a lack of local oversight could allow dispensaries to open near schools or parks, with no way for authorities to remedy the situation.

"I think they could easily be surprised," said Modesto Police Chief Roy Wasden, who chairs a statewide task force on medical marijuana. "They're not prepared for the issues that will surround dispensaries opening up."

According to Americans for Safe Access, a medical-marijuana advocacy group, 26 cities and eight counties in California have ordinances allowing and regulating dispensaries.

An additional 55 cities and two counties have enacted bans (which some advocates maintain are illegal), and 75 cities and six counties have imposed moratoria.

The remainder of the state's 478 cities and 58 counties have yet to specifically address the issue.

Throughout the state, there are at least 400 known medical-marijuana dispensaries - and likely hundreds more that are unpublicized.

In the Inland Valley, only Diamond Bar has a dispensary that has been permitted to open. The Claremont City Council gave preliminary approval last month to allow a single dispensary, but the city plans to first conduct an extensive process to come up with regulations before allowing a business.

The Fontana City Council in July took a unanimous vote to ban dispensaries as a land use in the city, and the Redlands council earlier this month banned dispensaries. The Rialto City Council on Aug. 8 voted to put a 45-day moratorium on the establishment of dispensaries in the city.

In Los Angeles - where the number of dispensaries soared from just a handful to more than 200 in the past two years - stunned city officials recently passed a moratorium on new clinics until they can develop guidelines.

About 15,000 Californians have registered for state medical-marijuana identification cards.

Because the cards are voluntary and not required to obtain medical marijuana, officials cannot say with any certainty how many people actually are seeking the drug.

Pro-legalization groups estimate there are 150,000 to 200,000 medical-marijuana users in California - up from about 30,000 just five years ago.

Law-enforcement agencies remain concerned about the potential for unregulated dispensaries, with their stashes of drugs and cash, to attract crime to neighborhoods.

Some of the facilities, they say, are simply profit-making enterprises that sell at stiff prices to healthy youths and the seriously ill alike.

The Los Angeles Police Department has reported an increase in crime near some facilities, and has received complaints about activities such as one dispensary handing out fliers for free marijuana samples to students at Grant High School in Valley Glen.

But medical-marijuana advocates and some academic experts said such concerns are overblown.

"I think that's something that law enforcement is using as a tactic to spread fear," said Kris Hermes, Americans for Safe Access spokesman.

"And to intimidate city and county officials from doing what's right and what's just, which is to establish protections for these facilities and, if necessary, regulate them in some sensible way."

The Reason Foundation issued a report earlier this year that said marijuana-related crimes have decreased since Proposition 215 was passed by voters in 1996.

"Common sense would say there's no reason why a well-regulated dispensary would add to ambient crime in the neighborhood at all," report author Skaidra Smith-Heisters said.

The only factor that might contribute to crime, she said, "would be the fact that they're operating without any ground rules right now."

While the Bay Area was the first to embrace medical marijuana - and its cities were the first to figure out how to handle it - more recently the fastest growth has shifted to Los Angeles, and especially the San Fernando Valley.

Only three years ago, the city had perhaps one or two known dispensaries. Today, there are at least 150 listed in directories maintained by advocacy groups. City and law-enforcement officials believe there are as many as 400.

About half of the city's known facilities are in the San Fernando Valley, meaning a region that has roughly 5percent of the state's population has 19percent of its medical-marijuana facilities - more in fact than the entire Bay Area from San Jose to Marin County.

"The center of gravity on this shifted in the last couple of years," said Dale Gieringer, director of the California chapter of the pro-legalization group NORML.

"When it started out, everything was in Northern California."

The first facilities in Los Angeles County, he said, were established in West Hollywood by operators from the Bay Area.

"After they got established down there, it took a year or two before somebody was willing to put their toe in across the city line. Then they did, and all of a sudden it was `Katy bar the door.' The great cannabis rush was on," he said.

The Los Angeles City Council recently placed a moratorium on new facilities while it figures out how to deal with the growth.

Council members are generally sympathetic to legitimate dispensaries that are seen as helping the seriously ill, but they want to be able to regulate them and weed out the bad actors.

Although state voters legalized medical marijuana in 1996, growth has only occurred recently because there had been confusion about how the law worked.

In 2003, the state enacted legislation spelling out a series of specific regulations.

But even as the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 essentially confirmed the validity of Proposition 215, it also upheld the federal government's right to prosecute marijuana patients under federal law.

That has prompted growing tensions, including in Los Angeles. where the federal Drug Enforcement Agency has launched raids against dispensaries.

"We're not going to stop enforcing the federal laws now," said Sarah Pullen, spokeswoman for the DEA's Los Angeles region.

About nine states have laws permitting medical marijuana, according to Rosalie Pacula, a drug policy analyst with the RAND Corp.

But California has attracted more attention from the feds, in part, she said, because its laws are looser than other states, allowing patients to possess larger quantities and allowing dispensaries to flourish.

"If you're really interested in protecting patients, keep the quantities low," Pacula said.

Some in Congress are trying to get the DEA to back off, including Reps. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach, and Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., who have a bill that would block funding for prosecutions of medical-marijuana patients.

Without such protections, businesses that believe they are operating legitimately under California state law still keep a jittery eye out for federal agents and often try to maintain a low profile.

Holistic Alternative Inc., a nonprofit dispensary in Canoga Park, opened three months ago and finds it hard to attract new patients because it can't advertise.

Instead, it and other facilities rely on Internet advertising - a more discrete option than hanging a big sign out front.

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