San Pablo extends moratorium on cannabis clubs

Tom Lochner, Contra Costa Times

The San Pablo City Council on Monday extended for a second year a moratorium on the opening of medical marijuana dispensaries, or cannabis clubs. But the council signaled it does not want the issue to drag on for much longer, ordering the city staff to schedule a study session on the matter within a "reasonable" period.

City Attorney Brian Libow warned the council that a cannabis club, or two, could open once the current moratorium expires on May 15, absent any reference to such a business in the city's zoning code.

"They do tend to be magnets for crime ... and other adverse effects," Libow said, urging the council to extend the moratorium.

Buzz Fowler, owner of MEDelivery's Dispensary in unincorporated El Sobrante, said cannabis clubs, if run responsibly, do not generate crime. Fowler, who also runs a medical marijuana delivery service, invited the City Council and staff to see for themselves by visiting his dispensary, which he opened before the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors enacted a moratorium for unincorporated areas last month.

Fowler and another speaker said San Pablo's council had ample time to craft a regulating ordinance since it first enacted a moratorium on May 16, 2005.

Libow said he could draft an ordinance to regulate cannabis clubs, as more than 20 California cities have done, or ban them, as about 15 cities have. But instead, he recommended the one-year moratorium extension to allow more time for the ongoing conflict between the federal government and the state over medical marijuana to play out. About 50 California cities have moratoriums on the opening of cannabis clubs.

In 1996, California voters passed the Compassionate Use Act, which allows the medical use of marijuana on the recommendation of a doctor. But the federal government classifies marijuana as an illegal drug with no medical use.

A 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling affirmed the federal government's right to prosecute people who use medical marijuana even in states where it is legal.

Libow said the federal-state conflict raises the question whether a City Council that "permits" cannabis clubs could be considered to "aid and abet the commission of a federal crime."

A public speaker challenged that notion, saying no local official had ever been prosecuted on such grounds.

Councilman Paul Morris said a cannabis club is "not needed" in San Pablo if only because the one in El Sobrante is close by.

Morris moved to adopt the moratorium, with Councilman Joe Gomes seconding.

Councilman Leonard McNeil and Councilwoman Sharon Brown questioned the need for extending the moratorium for a whole year, and recommended a prompt study session.

Mayor Genoveva Garcia Calloway suggested Morris amend his motion to include the promise of a study session; Gomes concurred. While the motion did not specify what a "reasonable" time is, council members had talked about three months in the discussion before the vote.

The one-year moratorium extension passed 5-0. Afterward, Libow said he expects the council to hold a study session within three or four months.