Watsonville eyes ban on prescription marijuana sales

October 22, 2007

Donna Jones, Santa Cruz Sentinel

WATSONVILLE — After narrowly permitting body artists to set up shop last month, the City Council today will consider another potentially controversial business — medical marijuana dispensaries.

Staff is recommending a ban, citing problems in other communities with crime, public pot smoking and complaints from neighboring businesses.

But John Doughty, the city's community development director, said the bigger problem is that officials would be forced to issue business licenses or planning permits in conflict with federal drug laws.

"We don't think it's appropriate to put ourselves in a position to have to violate federal law," Doughty said.

Using marijuana as medicine has been legal under state law since 1996 when voters passed Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act. But while opening the door to prescription pot, the initiative provided few guidelines for implementation, and it put the state into conflict with federal drug laws.

Drug Enforcement Administration agents routinely raid pot dispensaries, and most Central Coast cities prohibit such outlets, either overtly by statute, such as in Marina, or by a zoning exclusion that bans businesses not specifically permitted, such as in Capitola and Monterey, according to the city staff report.

Santa Cruz, which recently lifted a smoking ban in a city park to allow patients to light up at an annual medical marijuana festival, is the exception. The city is home to two dispensaries: Greenway Compassion Inc. and Santa Cruz Patients Collective, both in the city's industrial area near Harvey West Park. No one was available to comment at either dispensary Monday.

But even the famously liberal city has limits, and in 2005 Santa Cruz leaders, worried about the image of its downtown, quickly shut down a pot cooperative that tried to open on Pacific Avenue.

 In more socially conservative Watsonville, the staff report suggests residents who want to treat illness with pot can make their purchases in Santa Cruz.

Valerie Corral, cofounder of the Santa Cruz-based collective Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana, said the travel puts a strain on the sick. About 20 of the club's 120 members are from the Watsonville area, she said. These are people who are suffering, even dying, and they have to either drive to Santa Cruz, or take public transportation.

If people don't have the access close to home from a legitimate source like a dispensary or WAMM, some will go underground, Corral said.

"The last thing Watsonville needs is to support illicit drug traffic," she said. "Eliminating access to dispensaries where people are much safer ... I don't think they're being sensible"

Watsonville Police Chief Terry Medina said he wasn't directly involved with crafting the city's proposed policy, which was written and researched by the community development department with his input. But he said he's aware of problems elsewhere.

"My reality, whether you're WAMM or the city or the person who believes they need medical marijuana, is that the law came through an initiative process terribly flawed, and measures to try to standardize it and correct it have politically failed," Medina said.

Contact Donna Jones at djones@santacruzsentinel.com.

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