More medical pot rules up for county vote

January 23, 2011

Chris Nichols, North County Times

Want to open a medical pot shop in San Diego County's backcountry?

Be prepared to pay more than $11,000 a year for Sheriff's Department services ---- probably the highest annual law enforcement fee the county charges any type of business, according to a top department official.

And be ready for a criminal background check by the federal government.

The Board of Supervisors is expected on Tuesday to approve those add-ons to the county's medical marijuana dispensary law passed last summer, a measure that already was considered restrictive because of its zoning limits.

California voters in 1996 approved the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Local governments ever since have struggled with how to govern the sale of medical pot, given the lack of rules in the voter initiative and the federal government's unwavering position that marijuana is illegal, no matter the purpose.

County officials said the new measures up for a vote on Tuesday are intended to recover county costs and ensure the public's safety.

Assistant Sheriff Ed Prendergast said the $11,017 annual fee figure is the Sheriff's Department's "best estimate" of what it must charge dispensaries to recover its cost to process a dispensary's application, check the applicant's background and inspect the shop and respond to neighbors' complaints at the business.

He said he could not think of a higher yearly fee the department charges any business for its services.

The assistant sheriff said the department could not immediately provide the amount it charges other businesses it regulates, such as massage parlors and firearm distributors.

Eugene Davidovich, chairman of the board of the San Diego Chapter of Americans for Safe Access Advisory, said the proposals are another attempt to stifle access to medical pot, not regulate it.

"There is no other business in California, period, that has to go under this kind of scrutiny," he said.

He added that the Sheriff's Department charges other businesses that it regulates roughly 10 percent of what it is proposing to charge medical pot dispensaries.

Prendergast could not immediately say whether that was accurate.

"It doesn't make any sense what's going on here," Davidovich said. "It points toward a bias and an agenda. It doesn't point toward regulating, it points toward eradicating."

Prendergast said the county was "absolutely not" trying to eliminate all medical marijuana shops.

"When you're dealing with marijuana, there's a high potential for abuse," he said. "We've got to make sure that the multibillion-dollar marijuana industry doesn't corrupt our medical marijuana community."

In September 2009, local law enforcement helped federal authorities shut down 14 medical pot dispensaries and arrested more than 30 people from Vista to San Marcos to San Diego.

They said the action was spurred by neighbors' complaints about noise and vandalism generated by the dispensaries.

At the time, San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said the dispensaries acted as for-profit businesses and sold to customers who were not members of their cooperatives, both of which are violations of state law.

The county dispensary law, enacted in 2010, limits the shops to industrial zones, requires they have a licensed security guard, video monitoring, precise records of all transactions, including the names of marijuana suppliers and their addresses; and bans the sale of any marijuana-laced food or drinks.

Davidovich said only a handful of parcels in the backcountry would qualify under the rules and that none is available for lease or sale, he said.

In a brief report to the supervisors regarding Tuesday's vote, the county's top cop and top executive, Sheriff Bill Gore and Chief Administrative Officer Walt Ekard, respectively, recommended the annual fee and a fingerprint requirement for dispensary license applicants.

Applicants would need to receive clearance from the Federal Bureau of Investigations to obtain a dispensary license.

Davidovich said the handful of medical pot dispensaries that had operated in North County closed after the 2009 raids.

Some dispensaries continue to operate in the city of San Diego despite that jurisdiction's efforts to restrict them, he said.

Adding more rules to the county's medical pot dispensary laws will lead more patients to the black market, he predicted.

"That's who it hurts the most," Davidovich said. "These restrictions go against the intent of the (state) law, of helping the sick and dying."

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