Merced County supervisors ban medicinal marijuana dispensaries

December 20, 2007

Corinne Reilly, Modesto Bee (CA)

Merced County officials passed an ordinance this week permanently banning medical marijuana dispensaries across the unincorporated county.

The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to support the ordinance, which mirrors ordinances adopted by the cities of Modesto, Ceres, Merced, Patterson, Atwater and Los Banos. Many other cities have moratoriums on dispensaries.

Though there are no marijuana dispensaries in Merced County, officials said during the board meeting that dispensaries have been troublesome in other communities. Besides attracting crime, they can lower property values, disrupt nearby businesses and increase illegal drug use and demands on police, county planning officials said.

Law enforcement officials spoke in support of the ban. Chris Gallagher, chief of the Los Banos Police Department, said robberies and violent crimes occurred regularly at dispensaries in the city of Arcata in Humboldt County, where he previously served as chief of police. "In my experience ... these dispensaries have been extremely disruptive," he said.

Merced Police Chief Russ Thomas and Atwater Police Chief Richard Hawthorne also spoke in support of the ordinance.

Three people spoke against the ban, including two medical marijuana patients. "What little compassion you have for sick people in this community," Atwater resident Ed Gassaway said. "It's appalling."

Other critics of the ban said it will push patients to the black market to buy marijuana. They say instead of outlawing dispensaries, local governments should pass ordinances strictly regulating when, where and how they can operate. About 35 cities and counties across the state have taken that approach, according to a county report.

Fifty-seven cities and three other counties have chosen bans, including Stanislaus County.

"This is a huge mistake. It's a step in the wrong direction," said Merced resident Grant Wilson. For years, he urged county officials to issue identification cards for medical marijuana patients.

In an attempt to avoid issuing the cards, the county in 2006 joined a lawsuit brought against the state by San Diego County. The counties argued that because federal law prohibits all uses of the drug, counties shouldn't be held to state laws requiring them to accommodate medical marijuana users.

The counties lost. In May, Merced County launched a program to issue the identification cards to medical marijuana patients. Eleven have been issued.

ID cards meant to help police

In California, people with a valid prescription for marijuana are allowed to have as many as eight usable ounces of the drug and six mature pot plants.

The ID cards are meant to help law enforcement officials determine whether a person found in possession of marijuana is using the drug in compliance with the law.

Just under half of California's 58 counties issue ID cards, as required by a 2003 state law that expanded on Proposition 215.

California voters became the first in the country to legalize medicinal marijuana when they passed the proposition in 1996. Since then, 10 states have followed suit.

All marijuana users still can be prosecuted under federal law.

Wilson, 51, suffers from hepatitis C. He was arrested in 2005 after police discovered pot plants growing in his home. Wilson said he still grows marijuana, but he doesn't have the greenest thumb. When his crop doesn't produce as he hopes, he is forced to travel to dispensaries in San Francisco and Oakland to buy the drug. "All I want is to get my medicine close to home," he said Tuesday.



Be the first to Comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.