Sebastopol may get medical pot shop

March 09, 2004

Lori A. Carter, Press Democrat

Hoping to capitalize on west Sonoma County's liberal reputation, the founder of the oldest medical marijuana club in Berkeley is proposing a similar shop just south of downtown Sebastopol.

James Blair, who in 1996 founded a nonprofit club called the Cannabis Buyers Cooperative of Berkeley, said he is negotiating to lease a commercial space on Main Street five blocks south of Highway 116.

Blair's is the second medical marijuana dispensary proposal to surface in the past week in the county, following in the footsteps of a plan to open a storefront in Sonoma near the town's historic Plaza.

That proposal, by Aaron Mitchell, son of the slain San Francisco 'King of Porn' Artie Mitchell, is unrelated to Blair's, and neither are being planned in conjunction with local medical marijuana activists.

After meeting with Sebastopol city officials this week, Blair believes his chances of city approval are high, though he was told his proposal must go through public hearings and will require a use permit limited by city-imposed conditions. No hearings have yet been scheduled.

A longtime activist for the environment and anti-nuclear causes, Blair said he carefully chose the time and place to propose his second medical marijuana co-op. He said he uses marijuana himself to alleviate pain caused in a 1994 accident that left him in temporarily paralyzed.

Blair said he believes that with President Bush fighting for re-election, recent favorable federal court rulings and a new state law, it is safe to expand medical marijuana operations beyond the Bay Area.

And given Sebastopol's public support for the medical use of marijuana -- and the City Council's 2002 suggestion to its police force not to cooperate with federal drug agents -- the west county town was opportunity knocking, Blair said.

'This is a time to establish new beachheads, build our resources, get attorneys on retainer and get prepared for the next onslaught,' he said.

Sebastopol Mayor Linda Kelley and Councilman Larry Robinson both said they would support Blair's proposal if the concerns of police and residents could be satisfied.

'I firmly believe that patients ... should be afforded whatever is legal to help with their pain and suffering,' said Kelley, a critical care nurse at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. 'That's what health care is about, addressing pain and suffering and having access to treatments.'

There are two other medical marijuana cooperatives in Sonoma County, both in Guerneville.

Sebastopol's initial reaction to the proposal contrasts that of Sonoma, which is unsure whether such a retail operation would be legal under current zoning codes.

Sonoma officials plan to meet next week with Mitchell's mother, Karen Van Kayne, to discuss the proposal.

Despite California's legalization of the use of marijuana for medical purposes with the 1996 passage of Proposition 215, conflicts between state and federal laws endure. Federal law bans the use and cultivation of marijuana for any purpose.

Sebastopol residents and city leaders need to consider the potential conflicts before allowing a pot store to open, Sebastopol Police Chief Jeff Weaver said.

'If this plan moves forward, everybody needs to have full knowledge of all the possible ramifications, from the criminal element and the federal government,' he said. 'I don't see there being a problem with our local officials, but there is a disconnect with the state of California and the federal government. This could be a situation where our reality conflicts with their reality.'

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