Medical marijuana distributors turn to Fremont clinics

September 30, 2004

Scott Wong, Oakland Tribune

FREMONT -- As several East Bay cities move to shut down medical marijuana shops over concerns they are magnets for crime, distributors have been turning to places like Fremont to keep cannabis flowing to their patients.

But Fremont officials, initially caught off guard, approved a 45-day emergency ban on the dispensaries Tuesday night to 'protect the public health, safety and welfare.'

The City Council voted by consent to ban medical marijuana dispensaries as the city studies related licensing, zoning and other regulations.

The council will have an opportunity in November to extend that ban by up to two years.

Hayward, Oakland and San Francisco -- where shops have been established -- have seen a rise in illegal drug activity and drug sales, robbery of patients leaving dispensaries and loitering around dispensaries, Fremont officials said.

The closure of many of those shops by cities has prompted dispensaries to consider moving to Fremont.

That's a growing concern for Fremont planning and law enforcement officials. Interim Planning Director Jeff Schwob said during the past six months, the city has had two or three inquiries 'by people fishing for answers' to see what Fremont's codes would allow.

But Fremont and many other jurisdictions don't have any zoning codes outlining where such facilities could be located.

'They could come in and put one across the street from the Police Department or next to a school,' police Chief Craig Steckler said.

Hayward grappled with similar issues last year once city officials learned of several dispensaries operating downtown. Instead of changing its zoning code, which doesn't allow dispensaries, it ended up grandfathering in the existing dispensaries for several years in hopes it will have more guidance from the state down the line.

'I think concern about criminal activity is misplaced,' said William Dolphin, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, a Berkeley-based medical marijuana advocacy group. 'I don't think that's been the experience of Oakland and other cities that have carefully regulated dispensaries.'

In 1996, California voters passed the Compassionate Marijuana Act, which allows a person with a doctor's recommendation to use cannabis legally for medical purposes.

A new state law, Senate Bill 420, provides additional rules on medical marijuana, including a voluntary program for identification cards for qualified patients and doctors, and limits on the amount of cannabis patients may receive.

Dolphin said local governments have a responsibility and obligation to implement the law.

'It is a right that Californians have to access medical marijuana when authorized by their doctors,' Dolphin said. 'This (moratorium) is a poor use of taxpayers' resources to circumvent the will of the people.'

But Fremont officials said it is unclear whether federal law -- which considers marijuana distribution and use illegal -- can be superseded by state law.

'This is an inherent conflict between state statute and federal statute,' Steckler said. 'We should not be put in a position to turn a blind eye to federal law.'

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