City Hall accused of dragging feet on medicinal marijuana

October 25, 2007

Kevin Herrera, Santa Monica Daily Press

Word spread quickly about the Herb King on Main Street and the owner's recent decision to dispense medical marijuana. So quickly, in fact, that the midnight tokers barely had enough time to exhale before City Hall put a chokehold on the herbalist, effectively chasing it out of town.

While medical marijuana dispensaries are allowed under state law and have sprouted up al­l over Southern California, city officials have not allowed them to set up shop in Santa Monica.

That could change following a recent report by city planners outlining several ways in which the operations could be regulated to cut down on their impact on the community.

Dispensaries offering marijuana to qualified patients could be forced to apply for a conditional use permit that would limit their hours of operation and place other restrictions on the owner. The City Council could limit dispensaries to certain areas of the city that are at least 1,000 feet away from schools, parks, religious centers and day care facilities.

“Every community is different (in how they choose to regulate dispensaries) and every community is unique when it comes to their tolerance level,” said Jing Yeo, a senior city planner who looked at the ways in which 26 cities and eight counties regulate medical marijuana.

PLANTING THE SEED

Allowing medical marijuana dispensaries became an issue for Santa Monica in February, when entrepreneur Nathan Hamilton asked the council to allow him to open up shop on the 2200 block of Main Street. Hamilton, who now operates a dispensary in Tarzana, said there is a strong need for a dispensary in the city, citing at least 50 patients at his Tarzana facility who are Santa Monica residents and would much rather go to a location closer to home.

When Hamilton made his request, there were no zoning codes covering dispensaries, which makes them a prohibited use in Santa Monica. The council instructed city staff to look into the issue and study how other governing bodies have handled it.

Since then, Herb King began to distribute medical marijuana, furthering the need for an official response. Representatives from Herb King did not return phone calls seeking comment.

While the federal government considers smoking and possessing pot illegal — cracking down on dispensaries and cannabis clubs — medical marijuana is permitted under the state’s Compassionate Use Act, which was approved by voters in 1996. The law, in part, made legal the use of marijuana for medical purposes to qualified patients and their caregivers.

The law was further enhanced by SB 420, which went into effect in January 2004 and created a state-approved medical marijuana ID card program. The law established guidelines as to how much marijuana a patient or caregiver can possess and provided additional protections from state marijuana laws, including possession, transportation, distribution, importation and maintaining a place for selling, giving away or using a controlled substance.

Furthermore, the law authorizes patients with IDs to associate with one another in order to collectively or cooperatively cultivate medical marijuana.

YOU GOT THE MONEY? YOU GOT THE STUFF?

Hamilton said his Santa Monica dispensary would operate much like a collective, in that it would be a nonprofit dedicated solely to the health of its members and not the wallets of its investors.

Patients would enter the dispensary, which would be guarded and protected, and choose from a selection of buds, paying only a suggested donation. The money would then go back to the growers to help them continue cultivating the medicine. As the manager, Hamilton would receive a salary.

It is better to operate in that fashion because it cuts down on greed, which distorts the true nature of dispensaries, Hamilton said. It also cuts down on the illegal drug dealers and gangs who are trying to take over the market.

When businesses like Herb King sell pot without a permit, it makes other dispensaries look bad and makes it more difficult for those who are legit to get cities like Santa Monica to let them in, said Hamilton, who said he was angered by Herb King’s move and frustrated by how long it has taken city staff to issue their report on the issue.

“I wish they would stop lagging,” said Hamilton, who said he has spent roughly $40,000 for the lease to his Main Street location, which sits empty. “I’ve been holding onto this lease in hopes that they would make a decision, but all they’ve done is kind of shine me on for the past year.

“I was basically told that the council doesn’t find this subject to be important enough to put on the agenda ... I tried that (Tuesday).”

Mayor Richard Bloom, who helps set the council agendas, said that the regulation of dispensaries won’t likely be discussed any time soon, however, that could change if one of his colleagues, or city staff, chooses to discuss it.

Bloom said he is not in favor of placing a dispensary in Santa Monica, given the concerns expressed by Santa Monica Police Chief Timothy Jackman, and the fact that there are 17 dispensaries located within a 5-mile radius of the city, and an additional 33 within a 10-mile radius.

“I don’t think there is an issue of necessity that would make us change existing zoning law to allow this use,” Bloom said. “I’m sorry, but I don’t feel bad knowing that people have to drive a couple of miles to access this kind of business.”

BUZZKILL: THE POLICE POSITION

In the report to council, Jackman listed several concerns, one being possible raids by the federal government. Jackman said the DEA is increasing its efforts to shut down dispensaries and has conducted several raids in Los Angeles and West Hollywood. The raids have often been conducted without notification to local law enforcement.

Other concerns expressed by the police chief had to do with secondary effects, such as how patients are paying for the cannabis and any potentially illegal activities they may resort to if unable to pay for the marijuana.

Jackman also had concerns about the transportation of the marijuana from the growers to the dispensary, and about the profitability of such businesses. If they see sales drop, would the dispensaries sell illegal drugs to make ends meet?

Other police departments have expressed concerns about a criminal element being drawn to dispensaries, resulting in street dealers trying to sell buds at lower prices. There are also those who worry about burglary attempts on dispensaries.

Bloom said another thing to consider is the impact these businesses would have on pedestrians and the experience Santa Monica is trying to create.

“I think this really flies in the face of the pedestrian friendly atmosphere we are seeking,” Bloom said. “These dispensaries have high security, covered windows, and on top of that, you have a situation where the federal government is looking to raid these businesses. I don’t think that is a positive thing for the community.”

Supporters of dispensaries say they are providing a valuable public service, helping patients who are suffering from HIV/AIDS, cancer and other ailments. They said properly run dispensaries pose no serious risk to public safety and have safeguards in place.

At Hamilton’s Tarzana facility, which city planners visited, patients are required to fill out a registration form showing evidence of a physician’s recommendation and designating the dispensary to be their primary caregiver. A supplemental form requires that the patient agree to not re-sell the medical cannabis and not to loiter around the dispensary.

Due to the number of burglaries that have occurred at dispensaries, the waiting room was separated from the consultation area by bulletproof glass and doors, city staff said.

The dispensary operates similar to a medical office with a file for each patient detailing dosage history. Hamilton said that he monitors the dosage for each patient and that no more than one ounce of marijuana is permitted per visit, unless the patient has a physician’s exemption.

The pot is displayed within a glass case in jars or packaged ready for purchase, such as with edible brownies, muffins or cookies. None of the products were grown on-site and extra inventory was stored in a safe. Smoking or eating the cannabis was not permitted on site.

Hamilton is holding out hope that a Councilmember will agendize the issue so that he can have a fair shot at convincing elected officials that allowing dispensaries is better than doing nothing because more groups will try to penetrate and operate under the radar, creating an unsafe situation.

The tolerance seems to be there, judging from the last election, in which 65 percent of Santa Monica voters agreed to make private, adult marijuana use the lowest law enforcement priority for the police department. Measure Y also requires the council to monitor any complaints, and the city clerk to send annual notice of the priority to federal and state representatives.

“The people want it, so why can’t they move forward on this issue?” Hamilton asked. “I have patients calling me every day who are waiting.”

kevinh@smdp.com



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