SLO stalls on medical pot sites

October 19, 2004

Leslie Griffy, San Luis Obispo Tribune

After nearly two hours of emotional testimony from supporters of medical marijuana dispensaries, the San Luis Obispo City Council decided not to allow them in the city -- for now.

Under Tuesday's ruling, city officials will look into ways to regulate medical marijuana distribution centers, but facilities are forbidden from opening in the city until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the legality of the drug.

The decision was a compromise involving council members John Ewan and Christine Mulholland -- who supported allowing the centers -- and Ken Schwartz, who was unsure. Mayor David Romero and Allen Settle opposed the measure.

The legality of medical marijuana isn't clear. Californians voted to allow it in 1996, but the federal government says the drug is illegal and dangerous.

Despite supporters' emotional testimony, Police Chief Deborah Linden urged the council to wait until a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the issue, expected to be handed down next summer at the latest.

'The conflict between federal and state law has been a nightmare for law enforcement to deal with,' Linden said. 'The case before the Supreme Court will give us the answer' to questions surrounding medical marijuana.

To supporters of the dispensaries, wait-and-see isn't good enough.

'If you guys believe in this issue, you should show the federal government you believe in this issue' by allowing the facility, said Cal Poly student Eran Tal.

Mulholland was willing to go for the compromise, saying, 'Let's hit the road running when and if the Supreme Court gets it right.'

Like 10 other residents -- some of them in tears -- Robert Cox urged the council to allow the centers.

Cox, a caretaker for two people with severe epilepsy who used medical marijuana, tried to ease concerns that such dispensaries might incite crime in the city, saying further action can be taken to address any problems.

'I ask you to look to your compassionate sides,' Cox told the council.

Cox and others speaking in favor outweighed the three people who spoke against the dispensaries Tuesday during the City Council's consideration of the matter.

'The council is simply being asked to implement a mechanism that provides safe access for patients in the city,' said attorney Louis Koory, who represents clients interested in opening a center.

This was the city's chance to comply with state law, which calls for legal access for the drug, Koory said.

If the council had voted to allow dispensaries, San Luis Obispo would have joined Santa Barbara County and cities such as Placerville, Hayward and Oakland in regulating medical marijuana.

Placerville Police Chief George Nielsen agrees that, legally, distribution centers fall into a 'pretty gray area.'

He tells people interested in opening a center that the federal government could close them down, even though the city allows them to operate.

He shares some of Linden's worries with the program -- including that the centers lead to increased crime in other cities.

'I think dispensaries are often abused,' Nielsen said.

Linden said the potential for increased crime has her department concerned.

'We are worried about the impact of this ... on crime in our community, as well as our staff resources to deal with any problems that may come from this facility,' she said.

But Cox, the caretaker, told the council those worries shouldn't stop an approval right now.

'It is our responsibility to put in regulations that stop the things the chief is concerned about,' Cox said. 'We can do that.'

In Santa Barbara, about 60 cancer, AIDS and glaucoma patients have registered to get a medicinal cannabis card since the county's program went into effect in July.

'We felt this was important for us to do for the people who really need medical marijuana,' said Susan Frokusch, the director of health education in Santa Barbara County.

Although their program is working well, Frokusch offers advice to communities considering regulating medical marijuana.

'It is important ... for the public health department to work closely with the police department,' she said.

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