Mountain View council bans pot dispensaries

February 22, 2011

Daniel DeBolt, Mountain View Voice

Mountain View City Council members backed away from approving an ordinance allowing medical marijuana dispensaries in the city Tuesday (Feb. 22) and decided instead to ban them indefinitely.

While a majority of the council had expressed support for such an ordinance last year, Margaret Abe-Koga and Ronit Bryant were the swing votes needed to ban dispensaries indefinitely in a 4-3 vote. Council members Laura Macias and Mayor Jac Siegel also supported the ban.

Bryant and Abe-Koga both said they had recently heard opposition from many residents about the prospect of Mountain View becoming the only city on the Peninsula to allow marijuana dispensaries. In December, the Sunnyvale City Council opposed a similar ordinance allowing dispensaries, while Los Altos and Palo Alto also have bans.

"We probably would be the first city to do something on this and I don't know if that's our place, quite frankly," Abe-Koga said of the ordinance. "There's a lot that's still happening. We need to wait it out a bit."

A draft ordinance created by the city attorney's office was praised by medical marijuana advocates Tuesday and was approved in a 5-0 vote by the Environmental Planning Commission on Jan. 19. The commission-approved ordinance would keep dispensaries 600 feet from homes, parks and schools, leaving room for as many as three dispensaries in commercial zones along Highway 101, Highway 237 and at San Antonio Shopping Center. A rigorous conditional permit process was aimed at filtering out problematic dispensary operators from those genuinely wishing to provide a medical service.

The ordinance was not presented to the council Tuesday, however, as City Attorney Jannie Quinn said the Santa Clara County District Attorney's office was probably going to create guidelines on how dispensaries should operate as non-profits. Quinn said she wanted time to incorporate those guidelines into the ordinance. Several dispensaries raided by police in San Jose are said to have been operating as for-profit businesses under the guise of being state-required not-for-profits.

Both Bryant Abe-Koga supported bringing the ordinance back once such issues were clarified.

Bryant, a cancer survivor who had considered using medical marijuana, completely changed her opinion about dispensaries.

"A year ago I was very much in favor of having an ordinance" and "helping people with all kinds of illnesses," Bryant said. But when the time came near to vote on an ordinance, she said she decided that "people should be able to go to pharmacy and get it there. That's what I feel comfortable with. We unfortunately can't make it happen, but that's the only way I would feel comfortable."

The council might support putting the ordinance on the 2012 election ballot for voters to decide rather than take a controversial position on the matter, said Vice Mayor Mike Kasperzak to Brian David, a potential dispensary operator, after the meeting. Voters have approved ballot measures allowing cities to tax dispensaries in Oakland and San Jose.

Council member Tom Means said he was also concerned about being the only city around allowing dispensaries because it "sets up a market structure that might not be good." But he also criticized the sentiment expressed by other members that the city should follow the lead of others in coming up with its ordinance.

"We're in the city, we know what's going on," Means said. "You won't find a smarter group of people better than us to resolve this. I don't trust they would figure this out any better than us."

Public speakers were split over the ordinance. Residents mostly opposed the ordinance, including a group of St. Athanasius church members who were concerned that dispensaries would provide the city's teens easier access to marijuana. That followed concerns expressed by Mountain View police Capt. Max Bosel that having dispensaries could increase the number of cases involving "individuals who obtain marijuana from these dispensaries and resell it, including cases involving local high school students."

Bosel added that "many (dispensaries in San Jose) have ties to illegal conduct" including possession of weapons and "hiding profits."

Lauren Vasquez, a land use attorney who works with San Jose-based Americans for Safe Access, called the draft ordinance "a model ordinance" because the "conditional use permit process allows flexibility for the practical needs of operators" and ensures "limited impact on the community," she said.

Vasquez said the ordinance improves on the situation in San Jose, where more than 100 dispensaries operate without city regulations.

"There's so much pain out there" for which "cannabis is the only medicine that works," said one San Jose dispensary operator.

Hoping to illustrate how easy it was to get a medical marijuana card, resident Don Ball said he wet to a doctor's office frequented by San Jose State University students where a doctor pointed to a list of reasons why medical marijuana can be prescribed. "I do have arthritis in this thumb and this thumb," he said.

Ball said that was good enough for the doctor, and Ball showed the council the medical marijuana card he got from the visit.

"I went online and in 10 minutes I had a doctor offering me a card" for $49, said Mayor Siegel. "I had to answer only 10 questions."

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