City weighs restrictions on pot dispensaries
March 26, 2011
Chris Cadelago, San Diego Union-TribuneFifteen years after state voters approved marijuana for medical purposes, the city of San Diego stands poised to consider proposals that would dramatically pare down the number of dispensaries and force those that qualify to tighten their operations. The City Council on Monday will look to forge the path toward legitimacy for some of the roughly 180 medical marijuana dispensaries operating in an unrestricted environment, closing a chapter in a long-running debate over how to provide access for patients while ensuring safety for neighborhood residents.
The proposed rules would limit dispensaries to some commercial and industrial zones. Cooperatives would have to be 1,000 feet from each other, schools, playgrounds, libraries, child care and youth facilities, parks and churches.
They also would have limited business hours and mandatory security guards.
Councilman Todd Gloria, who is advancing the zoning proposal, said maintaining the status quo was not acceptable to cannabis patients, collective owners or neighborhood residents pining for rules of the road.
“In my council district, which has been very favorable to cannabis as legitimate medicine, I have neighborhoods coming to me pleading for relief” from the impacts of dispensaries, Gloria said. “If the ordinance is enacted the collectives are going to have to show over time that they can be good neighbors.”
Passage of the measure is no guarantee: Opponents on one side say it will choke patient access to medical marijuana while critics on the other contend it amounts to tacit approval of a drug with no redeeming qualities.
“It’s at such opposite ends right now that nobody is reaching across the aisle to get done what needs to be done,” said Frederick Aidan Remick, former director for the Association of Clinical Dispensaries.
The Rev. John Bombaro voiced concern about the number of marijuana collectives and some of the activity around them.
“What is the vision for San Diego?” said Bombaro, who says he’s seen an uptick in loitering, drug use and fights since four dispensaries opened in the same building next to Grace Lutheran Church. “I don’t think we want to become the Amsterdam of Southern California.”
Eugene Davidovich, local chapter coordinator of Americans for Safe Access, said the organization has studied the proposed restrictions and found just one to three parcels that could allow dispensaries. Proponents of a citywide ban estimate between 25 and 30 locations where collectives could legally open.
“This isn’t regulating access it’s simply eradicating it,” Davidovich said. “It will have a significant negative impact on the most vulnerable folks in our community.”
None of the collectives would be grandfathered in regardless of the final policy, leading supporters to contend it would amount to a de facto ban when combined with the county’s ordinance.
Only a handful of people have applied to open medical pot shops in unincorporated areas of the county since the Board of Supervisors in June approved a set of regulations establishing how and where marijuana dispensaries could operate.
Every collective currently operating in the city would have to close and apply for a permit, further limiting availability of the medication, said Rachel Scoma, a senior organizer with Stop the Ban.
“In reality, they are all going to shut down and it will take a year before any of them can open,” Scoma said.
Stop the Ban is calling for revisions that allow for all commercial and industrial areas to be included; relax distance restrictions to comply with the state law of 600 feet from schools and provide medical marijuana facilities the same requirements imposed on traditional pharmacies.
More than 3,700 residents have written letters to the council voicing their opposition to the ordinances, Davidovich said. Among them was Terrie Best, a board member of Stepping Stone of San Diego, an inpatient drug and alcohol treatment facility.
Best said she’s seen people with chronic pain begin to take pharmaceutical pills only to have their lives turned upside down by dependence. Many chose cannabis as a pain killer without the devastating consequences, she said.
“If they have a look at what we’re trying to do they would understand that we’re not wild-eyed, crazy dope heads,” said Kenneth Cole, owner of the downtown dispensary One on One. “We have the support of our landlord. That’s not what this business is about.”
Twelve of California’s 58 counties ban medical marijuana dispensaries outright, an increase of 10 in the last two years. Eleven have established regulations and eight have temporary moratoriums, according to the Coalition for a Drug Free California. Among cities, 42 have regulations, 90 have temporary moratoriums and 214 have bans, according to the coalition.
A separate survey by the safe access group found 12 counties with bans, 15 with temporary moratoriums and nine with regulations. In addition, 42 cities had regulations, 103 had moratoriums and 143 had bans. Both lists were updated last month.
Since May, the City Attorney’s Office has sent more than 40 letters to dispensary operators and property owners in cases referred by the Neighborhood Code Compliance Division. There also have been raids, arrests and ample frustration.
Councilwoman Lorie Zapf said the proposed regulations have serious flaws. She and others have called for a 1,000-foot buffer around universities and colleges amid worries that her district would become the “pot district.”
There’s no doubt that marijuana shops are commercial enterprises as evidenced by the copious amount of advertising, discount coupons and special prices, said Scott Chipman, chairman of San Diegans for Safe Neighborhoods. He believes the proliferation of storefronts is increasing recreational drug use and youth access to marijuana.
“What’s the enforcement mechanism?” he said. “Because code compliance has been borderline useless.”
Safe Neighborhoods member Marcie Beckett is among those pushing for an all-out ban on pot shops.
“It’s the only thing to end this backdoor legalization — something voters turned down in November,” said Beckett, the mother of 14- and 16-year-old boys. “And it’s the only real way to keep it out of the hands of young, healthy people.”
The meeting is 2 p.m. Monday on the 12th floor of San Diego City Hall, 202 C St.