Proposed New Limits on Medical Marijuana Challenged

March 24, 2011

Esther Rubio-Sheffrey,

Community leaders and concerned citizens gathered Monday night to organize opposition to an ordinance they say could result in a "defacto ban" on medical marijuana dispensaries in San Diego. The ordinance is scheduled to come before the City Council on March 28. 

Panelist Stephen Whitburn, who served on the city's Medical Marijuana Task Force in the fall of 2009, explained that this diverse task force of 11 members, made specific recommendations to the City Council regarding the regulation of dispensaries, also known as co-ops. 

"Unfortunately in going through the committee process [within City Council], these regulations have become much more strict," Whitburn said. "A lot of us feel it will make it quite inconvenient, unrealistic and unfair for sick people who really need and are entitled to obtain this medicine, the same way anybody else who goes to a pharmacy. Even those who are in favor of medicinal marijuana want regulations, but this goes too far."

Panelists at Monday night's meeting expressed concerned over the "sensitivity issues" the council may approve on March 28. Attorney Rachel Scoma, a Stop the Ban Campaign organizer, explained that entwined in the ordinance's legal wording is a strict 1,000-feet rule that will be imposed on all dispensaries.  

"No existing or new co-op will be able to open its doors within 1,000 feet from other collectives, libraries, places of worship, schools, parks and bus stops," Scoma said. "No one gets grandfathered in. Everyone gets shut down. The new application process will requires an approval vote from a committee, and that can take up to one year. In a nutshell, this will act as a defacto ban for at least a year. As collectives, we should be treated like pharmacies and not strip clubs."

Rev. Mary Moreno Richardson of St. Paul's Episcopal Church made it clear she was there to speak not on behalf of the church, but as a priest who has spent over 25 years working with patients suffering from illnesses such as AIDS and has seen the positive effects of medicinal marijuana firsthand.

"This is issue is really about compassion," Richardson said. "There are all of these other drugs that they will put you on but with bud everyone goes crazy. This is a bad message for our children because when you really think about it they are really the only ones who can get drugs on the street. I can't go out on the street and buy marijuana, but give a 15-year-old 20 minutes and they'll come back with a joint. This 'reefer madness' is hysteria. We shouldn't be tough on drugs, we should be smart on drugs."

Ben Cisneros, Activist San Diego president and Stop the Ban Campaign organizer, discussed what actions can be taken.

"This issue is political," Cisneros said. "It’s not that as individuals the City Council members feel strongly that patients should be alienated, but politically they feel the wind is blowing towards prohibitionist. Our community is by far in favor of medicinal marijuana. But we see perception and disconnect between San Diegans and the City Council. They do not see as an organized constituency, and they feel that people who oppose is it is where the political capital is, so they’re tough on the collectives."

Cisneros explained that in conjunction with Americans for Safe Access, Stop the Ban launched the largest letter-writing campaign on a specific ordinance prior to a vote. To date, close to 3,000 letters have been mailed to City Council members. The final round of letters gathered from patients and co-ops throughout San Diego will be mailed out on March 23. 

"We are asking for three specific amendments to the ordinance," Cisneros said. "Co-ops must be allowed in commercial zones, the permit process should be brought in line with what pharmacies comply with, and the sensitivity issues must be dropped and amended in accordance with state law, which is only 600 feet from schools. This is what we feel is safe access."

According to the city, the proposed ordinance "makes amendments to the city of San Diego Land Development Code that will allow medical marijuana consumer cooperatives, as defined, to operate in some Commercial and Industrial Zones with a Conditional Use Permit granted by the Planning Commission. The medical marijuana consumer cooperatives must be 1,000 feet from each other, and from schools, playgrounds, libraries, child care facilities, youth facilities (including youth hostels, youth camps, youth clubs), parks, and churches. Medical marijuana consumer cooperatives must comply with requirements regarding lighting, security, signage, and operating hours."

A rally and protest will take place between noon and 1:30 p.m. prior to the City Council vote at 2 p.m. The rally will begin at the Federal Courthouse, 940 Front St., and end at San Diego City Hall, 202 C St. Participants plan to address the council regarding their amendment.

La Jolla currently has two co-ops that may soon be shut down: San Diego Holistic Healing, located at 5544 La Jolla Blvd., and the La Jolla Medicinal Co-op, located at 737 Pearl St. Both co-ops were unavailable for commentary prior to publication.

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