Norco City Council likely to ratify marijuana dispensary ban

September 27, 2007

Sarah Gordon, Press-Enterprise (CA)

Norco is poised to join several other Inland cities in prohibiting medical marijuana dispensaries within its borders.

The City Council approved the first reading of an ordinance banning the shops on Sept. 19. The vote was 3-1 with Councilman Herb Higgins dissenting and Councilman Hal Clark absent. A second reading of the ordinance is scheduled for Wednesday. If the council approves it then, the ordinance will take effect Nov. 2.

The owners of a Norco dispensary, which a judge ordered to close in March, vowed to fight the ban in court.

Cities around California are struggling with how to address medical marijuana, which was legalized for medicinal use by state voters in 1996 but remains illegal under federal law.

Norco Mayor Harvey Sullivan, who supported the citywide dispensary ban, said the 1996 initiative isn't viable because the state failed to regulate medical marijuana, instead leaving the job to cities.

"I don't believe it's the city's responsibility," he said. Marijuana "is against federal law, and we can't go adopting something that's against federal law."

Sullivan voted in favor of the 1996 ballot measure, but he said he believes the state should set guidelines that protect cities from federal prosecution and allow marijuana to be sold in pharmacies. He said the current dispensary system is open to abuse.

"I think most of our residents feel the same way," he said Wednesday. "They don't have a problem with it if it's distributed properly."

Higgins voted against Norco's ban because the majority of voters in Norco, Riverside County and California approved the 1996 initiative.

"I voted to uphold the proposition measure that the voters in California supported," he said. "What choice did I have as somebody who represented the voters?"

Several Inland cities, including Indio, Palm Desert and Corona, have moratoriums or bans on marijuana dispensaries.

Norco's only dispensary, Collective Solutions, opened in December 2006 and was closed a few months later when a Riverside County Superior Court judge granted a preliminary injunction against the shop.

The city went after the Sixth Street dispensary on the grounds that it had no license and violated zoning laws.

Chris Yap, one of the dispensary's owners, said he's frustrated because he's willing to give the city whatever oversight it wants if he can open a dispensary to help sick people.

"I'd open a trailer right there at police headquarters," he said.

He'll continue to fight the issue in Norco, he said, adding, "Legal action is definitely coming."

The council also will decide Wednesday whether to extend a moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries that otherwise will expire that day, said James Daniels, Norco's community development director.

John Harper, Norco's city attorney, said it is irrelevant whether the moratorium expires a month before the new ban takes effect. The shops remain illegal as always because the city's zoning code does not explicitly allow them, he said.

"If one opened up in that period, the city would prosecute them, saying they are not permitted," Harper said.

Medical-marijuana advocates are awaiting the outcome of a court challenge to the city of Fresno's ban on medical marijuana dispensaries, but they plan to keep pushing for access, city by city, said Kris Hermes, spokesman for the Oakland-based Americans for Safe Access.

More than 30 cities and counties have adopted rules to govern distribution of medical marijuana and that, he said, shows it can work.

"All shutting down dispensaries in Norco does is force Norco patients and patients in the surrounding area to go elsewhere for their medicine," Hermes said.

Reach Sarah Gordon at 951-893-2114 or sgordon@PE.com



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