Marijuana advocates on council agenda

July 25, 2009

Kevin Clerici, Ventura County Star

Michael Meyer has watched with unease over the years as city after city in Ventura County has adopted moratoriums or other obstacles to block medical marijuana dispensaries.

But the 61-year-old Ventura resident, who has used medicinal cannabis for years to cope with rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia and other ailments, has newfound hope.

Recent polling shows more than half of Californians support legalizing pot and taxing it, the federal government has softened its stance, and some lawmakers are pushing for legalization to help cash-strapped cities and a state teetering on bankruptcy.

Three members of the Los Angeles City Council want to tax medical marijuana to help close the city’s budget gap. And last week, Oakland voters overwhelmingly passed a measure to tax the city’s four medical marijuana dispensaries, which is expected to raise upwards of $400,000 annually. Proponents say it showed voters were comfortable with the way Oakland has limited and regulated dispensaries.

“The tide finally seems to be turning in favor of wider medical use of marijuana,” said Meyer, the Ventura County organizer for Americans for Safe Access, a nationwide advocacy group.

Meyer and other advocates plan to press their case Monday night at Ventura City Hall, where the Ventura City Council has agreed to discuss the topic.

Ventura does not currently have a direct ban on dispensaries, although its zoning law prohibits them.

The advocates want Ventura to be the first in Ventura County to create a regulated, taxed program for “patient-oriented,” not-for-profit marijuana collectives under Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act of 1996. The act permits patients with a variety of illnesses to legally use medicinal marijuana in California.

Meyer points to the four Oakland dispensaries that are operating legally and with city permits, which he says are acting as good neighbors and are willing to be taxed at a rate that could really help that cash-strapped city.

The Oakland marijuana businesses, which generate an estimated $20 million annually in sales, will be taxed $18 per $1,000 in gross receipts, a 15-fold increase over the current charge.

Meyer estimates there are 10,000 to 15,000 medical marijuana patients in Ventura County, and they are spending tens of millions of dollars annually outside the county. Those figures are based on statewide patient estimates and gross receipts recorded by the state Board of Equalization, he said.

No city in Ventura County currently allows pot dispensaries. Some, including Moorpark, Oxnard and Thousand Oaks, have adopted temporary moratoriums. Camarillo just extended its ban. Simi Valley enacted a permanent one.

The growing dispensary industry poses a challenge Ventura must face, even if the city decides to do nothing, City Manager Rick Cole said.

Ventura County could see more unauthorized dispensaries now that Los Angeles sealed a legal loophole last month that had allowed hundreds of them to operate there.

Local cities have seen an influx of people interested in opening dispensaries since March. That is when U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced federal authorities would no longer take action against medical marijuana dispensaries if they complied with state and local laws.

Cole has asked the Ventura City Council for direction and offered choices: keep the status quo, develop rules for nonprofit collectives, or enact a moratorium while further studying the issue.

State law encourages — but does not require — local governments to help make distribution of medical marijuana safe and affordable for seriously ill patients, said Ventura City Attorney Ariel Calonne. He added that only nonprofit collectives and cooperatives that cater to closed groups of qualified patients and their primary caregivers have been found lawful by the courts.

While an increasing number of public officials, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, have urged study of legalization, there remains deep opposition among groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The California Police Chiefs Association have complained that marijuana clubs across the state are little more than fronts for drug dealers.

Meyer agrees there have been abuses. He denounced “rogue” operations, citing a dispensary that recently opened in Westlake Village after city officials said it didn’t belong. The operation was shut down by the Los Angeles County city, which since has enacted a moratorium. The dispensary is seeking a court injunction to reopen.

Meyer contends Ventura can craft regulations to weed out bad apples and ensure a new model of patient-focused care — “a place where a 75-year-old woman with terminal cancer who has never used marijuana could receive instruction, counseling and support from other users.”

“We have a unique opportunity to both serve the needs of Ventura County’s medical cannabis patients and create a significant tax generator and revenue stream for the city.”

The City Council meets at 6 p.m. Monday at City Hall, 501 Poli St.



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