County moves toward a ban on pot clubs

January 15, 2008

Ryan Huff, Contra Costa Times (CA)

Contra Costa supervisors took the first step toward prohibiting medical marijuana dispensaries in unincorporated areas of the county on Tuesday, aiming to pass a new ban by March.

Such facilities have not been allowed to open since the county approved a temporary moratorium in April 2006. That moratorium lapses April 10, the reason supervisors have asked county attorneys to draw up an ordinance that bans land uses that violate state or federal law -- including cannabis clubs.

The only legal medical marijuana business in the unincorporated county -- MEDelivery of El Sobrante -- will be allowed to remain open since it applied for a land-use permit before a moratorium two years ago, supervisors said. However, it would be closed if it tried to expand.

Using marijuana -- even for medical purposes -- is illegal under federal law, according to a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. This conflicts with state law, which allows residents with certain medical conditions to use marijuana with a doctor's recommendation.

"There's a strange dance going on with medical marijuana laws in California," said Contra Costa District Attorney Robert Kochly.

The federal Drug Enforcement Administration last month mailed letters to hundreds of California landlords of medical marijuana dispensaries, threatening them with imprisonment and property forfeiture if they allowed the practice to continue.

Contra Costa supervisors were concerned that the county might be in trouble with the federal government if they allow MEDelivery to keep operating. But Kochly said he's never heard of federal authorities targeting a local government agency simply because they regulate medical marijuana use.

A task force made up of Supervisors Susan Bonilla and Mary Piepho, law enforcement leaders, health officials and others also looked into allowing dispensaries if they were located a safe distance away from schools and parks.

But the committee recommended a ban instead because too often people use dispensaries as a means to buy marijuana and then sell it on the street, Kochly said.

"As long as there are doctors who will give a written recommendation for a couple hundred bucks of cash, then no amount of regulation can stop the secondary markets," he told supervisors. "This marijuana is available for just about anybody who wants to make an investment in a doctor's recommendation."

No one publicly spoke against the proposed ban at the supervisors' meeting.

Lauren Unruh, a medical marijuana activist from Pleasant Hill, said in a phone interview that a dispensary ban would only encourage a black market.

"It's like saying if you eliminate all the bars in town, alcohol consumption would end," she said. "When you put in a dispensary, you are helping to eliminate the illegal market."

The county's Planning Commission is expected to vote on the proposed ban on Jan. 29, followed by a hearing before the Board of Supervisors next month.

Ryan Huff covers Contra Costa County government. Reach him at or 925-977-8471.

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