Craig Gustafson, San Diego Union-Tribune
Mayor Bob Filner is proposing an ordinance to allow medical marijuana dispensaries to operate in commercial and industrial areas for a $5,000 annual permit fee and a 2 percent city tax on sales.
In addition, the proposal calls for dispensaries to be at least 600 feet away from K-12 schools, public parks, child care facilities, playgrounds and other dispensaries. There isn’t a distance requirement from churches, libraries and youth-serving facilities — restrictions that were included in a failed 2011 ordinance.
Filner also included a ban on pot vending machines, which received local attention earlier this month when Medbox Inc. announced it was taking deposits in San Diego on its automated dispensing machines in anticipation of a new ordinance. The mayor said he didn’t want them to be a distraction to getting an ordinance in place.
Filner, who has been working with medical marijuana advocates on the ordinance since January, said he’s hoping the proposal finds middle ground between the competing interests of neighborhood safety and safe access to the drug.
“That’s the emotional thing, otherwise this wouldn’t be a problem,” Filner said. “How do you guarantee access to those who need it on humanitarian grounds but protect against problems that we know arise, whether it’s access to children or intrusion on neighborhood quality of life?”
He added, “So you have to find a balance and that’s what we’re trying to do here. I thought the original thing that the City Council passed was too strict. I thought that some of the things that (Americans for) Safe Access wanted were too open so we had to try to find a balance.”
The proposal — which could go before the City Council in early April — is the mayor’s attempt to end a years-long dispute over what rules and restrictions should be put in place for dispensaries since state voters approved the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes in 1996. (Marijuana, even for medical purposes, remains illegal under federal law.)
The City Council approved an ordinance in 2011 that was later rescinded after a successful petition drive by medical marijuana proponents who considered it too restrictive. That plan required all of the city’s collectives to shut down and apply for permits and then limited them to some commercial and industrial zones.
Filner’s proposal allows dispensaries to operate in all commercial and industrial zones as long as they don’t violate distance restrictions.
Eugene Davidovich, local coordinator with the group Americans for Safe Access, praised Filner’s leadership on the issue and said patients in the city are in need of a common-sense approach to medical marijuana.
“The lack of regulations has forced many in our community to travel long distances or use the illicit market to obtain a medication that works for them,” he said. “Mayor Filner has taken a humanitarian approach to this issue, one guided by common sense instead of a will to eradicate and undermine state law. We … are confident that as a community we can come together on strict regulations that provide save access to those in need, ensure best management practices at dispensaries, and help establish a local industry that acts with integrity.”
Scott Chipman, with San Diegans for Safe Neighborhoods, a group that opposes marijuana dispensaries, said he understands the mayor wants to help the seriously ill, but the proposed ordinance disregards the negative impacts marijuana shops will have on neighborhoods. He also expressed concern that there doesn’t appear to be any proposed means to track who is providing marijuana to the stores or who is buying their products.
“There is a general sense that with proper regulation these pot shops will comply,” Chipman said. “That has proven to be incorrect hundreds of times in San Diego. These operators are not willing to follow state or city regulations. Even now we have pot shops opening illegally in communities with the anticipation of a new ordinance. No matter how you try to regulate these stores the facts will remain: They are selling primarily to healthy recreational users and accessing large amounts of marijuana from illegal growers and marijuana cartels. The ordinance will not stop that.”
Filner said he is proposing the $5,000 fee and 2 percent tax as ways for the city to recoup the costs of allowing dispensaries to operate.
“I also want a high enough fee that the fly-by-night guys are not just opening up like a corner store, but low enough so we don’t say you can’t be in business,” he said. “So it’s a balancing act.”
The City Council had been set to consider the medical marijuana issue at its March 25 meeting but that hearing will now likely be used to discuss community development block grants which need to be considered by March 26 to meet federal requirements.
Council President Todd Gloria is working on a new hearing date for the mayor’s proposal which would allow time for public comment and council discussion.
It’s hard to predict how the council will vote on Filner’s plan or if council members will amend it in some way.
Four current council members — Gloria, Marti Emerald, Kevin Faulconer and Sherri Lightner — supported the 2011 ordinance while Lorie Zapf didn’t think it went far enough and David Alvarez said it was too restrictive. Newer council members Mark Kersey and Scott Sherman have never voted on the issue.