Dispensary issue placed on Imperial Beach ballot

July 25, 2012

Katherine Poythress, San Diego Union-Tribune

Amid thunderous applause and cheers, the Imperial Beach City Council voted 4-1 last week to let voters decide in November whether they want to lift the city’s ban on medical marijuana dispensaries.

The vote came just weeks after residents submitted a petition containing at least 1,012 verified signatures, the percentage of registered voters required to qualify the proposed Safe Access Ordinance of Imperial Beach for appearance on ballots.

Council members also voted unanimously to craft their own measure that would compete with the ordinance in November.

To the surprise of supporters and opponents alike, it was Mayor Jim Janney who moved to place the Safe Access item on the November ballot.

“It’s a little bit disappointing, because I thought the council made the right decision last year when we voted on our existing ordinance,” Janney said at the council meeting. “Our ordinance allows for collectives of three people or less. There are several things that I believe are wrong with this initiative, including some of the terms and conditions, but I believe people have the right to vote in California, and I move to adopt the recommendation.”

After the gasps and applause subsided, he proceeded to hear testimony from the dozens of green-shirted advocates for the measure filling the council chamber and a nearby overflow room. Most appeared to be in their 20s and cited San Diego addresses, although a few locals spoke strongly in favor of the proposal. A handful of opponents spoke against it, but none were from Imperial Beach.

The six-page ordinance for Imperial Beach was co-sponsored by the San Diego chapter of Americans for Safe Access and grass-roots organization Canvass for a Cause. It is crafted to ensure “that seriously ill Californians and residents of the city of Imperial Beach can obtain and use cannabis for medical purposes where that medical use has been deemed appropriate by a physician in accordance with California law,” according to the document.

The measure would allow patients to smoke inside a dispensary if certain requirements are met, and allow the shops to operate from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. It does not include any special fees to help offset the cost of regulation and enforcement.

Janney said he did not want to assign city staff to conduct a study of the matter before placing it on the ballot, because they studied it recently. Last June, the City Council voted to ban medical marijuana dispensaries in lieu of developing zoning and regulations for restricted access.

The council reasoned at the time that two stores just outside the city limits were sufficient to provide patients with enough legal access to medical marijuana to comply with California’s 1996 Compassionate Use Act. Since then, one of those stores has buckled under pressure from a federal campaign to shut down dispensaries across the state, and the other operates only intermittently.

“I don’t want to ask for the city to produce more paper, because nothing has changed,” Janney said at the council meeting. “The federal law is still the same.”

The recent crackdown has cities hurrying to protect themselves from possible legal entanglements with the federal government.

A July 17 letter from U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy to Del Mar’s city attorney about a similar marijuana dispensary ordinance in that city reinforces the federal government’s position that “growing, distributing, and possessing marijuana, in any capacity, other than as part of a federally authorized research program, is a violation of federal law regardless of state laws permitting such activities.”

She goes on to state that any individuals and organizations – including state and city employees – that participate in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana “could be subject to civil and criminal remedies.”

The mayor said he begrudgingly voted to place the issue on ballots, and his irritation grew as speech after speech ended with a demand that the City Council fulfill its legal obligation to put the question to voters.

“I love that all you like to ‘demand’ when you didn’t even listen to what the council is doing,” he said.

Imperial Beach business owner and Safe Access proponent Marcus Boyd said he never saw this decision coming, after last year’s contentious battle over the issue.

“I applaud each and every one of you,” he told the council members. “You shocked me. I don’t know what to attribute it to. I could be cynical about it, and mean, but that would just be letting the past rule the future and I’d like to try to have this water under the bridge and have a fresh beginning.”

Councilman Edward Spriggs cast the lone vote in opposition. He said the proposition is flawed and should include more restrictions that would alleviate residents’ concerns about dispensaries’ proximity to family activities.

A subcommittee consisting of councilmen Spriggs and Brian Bilbray will work with the city attorney to develop the council’s alternative and are expected to submit it for council approval at an Aug. 1 meeting.

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