City weighs pot clubs

August 24, 2004

Alisha Wyman, Union Democrat

With three people now wanting to open medical marijuana dispensaries — commonly called cannabis clubs — in Sonora, the city has drafted an ordinance that would regulate distribution of the drug.

Proposition 215, passed by California voters in 1996, allows the use of marijuana for medical purposes. But the measure is vague, leaving the details of how to regulate marijuana up to the cities and counties, said City Attorney Richard Matranga.

Until now there has been no interest in establishing a club in Sonora, said City Administrator Greg Applegate.

Typically, the city doesn't enact an ordinance until there is a need.

As a result, there is nothing that would prohibit a cannabis club in Sonora, and there are no rules governing one once it is open. Absence of rules could promote litigation and make it difficult for law enforcement agencies to regulate the clubs, Matranga said.

'The problem is you might invite a free-for-all if you do one of two things: have no ordinance or prohibit it,' he told the members of the Sonora Public Safety Committee yesterday. 'This is sort of a middle ground, and I think it is close to mirroring the spirit of Proposition 215.'

The committee tabled the ordinance pending further research of another bill regarding medical marijuana. Members will vote on it at the next meeting, and if they approve it, it will go before the Sonora City Council.

The ordinance would prohibit clubs in residential zones, within 1,000 feet of establishments like schools, libraries and public parks and near businesses catering to youth. There could only be one club within the city limits.

An operator would have to get a permit, which would only be valid for one year. The applicant could then reapply. The ordinance allows the city administrator to conduct background checks on applicants and, after a club is established, gain access to records if an audit is deemed necessary.

There would also be limits on how much marijuana a club could possess at one time.

'The whole objective (of an ordinance) is to make it safer for the public,' Applegate said.

The measure was pieced together from the ordinances of other cities that have already passed rules regarding medical marijuana. The city of Jackson passed one in May and Angels Camp is currently following suit.

Royal Garrison IV, Jeff Craft and Steve Enriquez are three Tuolumne County residents interested in opening up shop in Sonora.

The three men are patients who use marijuana for medical purposes, but must travel to other counties to fill their prescriptions, they said. Limited access to the drug is tempting some people to support illegal sale of the drug, said Craft, a resident of Ponderosa Hill.

'If you have patients that can't afford to go to the dispensary, they'll get it from these street people,' he said at the meeting.

Craft, Garrison and Enriquez are pushing for the ordinance so they can move forward with a local dispensary, they said.

'We need to go ahead and do it legally,' said Garrison, who suffers from a disease that results in chronic knee pain and difficulty walking. 'If not, the criminals will pick up the profit.'

Garrison, of Sonora, now runs a temporary delivery service to patients in the area, which is legal under state law. But he said he worries he might be accused of being a drug dealer without the backing of a more professional business. He's interested in establishing a permanent service in addition to a physical location.

'We have people who are in wheel chairs that can't necessarily come down to a club,' he said.

But establishing a delivery service depends on the ordinance the city passes.

Mayor Dave Shepherd said at the meeting that medical marijuana is already available in a pill form at local pharmacies, negating the need for clubs.

'These people are licensed professionals that have insurance,' he said.

But Craft countered that, depending on the patient, a pill isn't always effective. It's also expensive and not covered by Medi-Cal and Medicare.

Pharmacies have resisted carrying marijuana in its traditional form for security reasons, Garrison said. They are often targets of robbery and don't want to give criminals yet more motivation.

Federal laws may also dissuade corporate chains from keeping marijuana in stock in California pharmacies, he said.

Shepherd brought in an excerpt from Senate Bill 151, approved last September, which addresses some of the issues that pharmacies face. The committee decided to table the ordinance until Matranga can further examine the bill and determine if it changes any part of the ordinance.

The city also wants to look into the legality of a delivery service, Applegate said.

'We just want to make sure we have everything researched correctly,' Applegate said.



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