Medical marijuana advocates call for more access in Richmond, creation of task force

Mike Aldax, Richmond Standard

Medical marijuana advocates are calling on the city of Richmond to amend an ordinance to make it easier for dispensaries to open in the city, and to create a task force to monitor them.

The topic is scheduled to be discussed at a special Public Safety Committee meeting on Thursday.

“Access in Richmond is really a problem for patients,” said Jocelyn Weisbrich, an attorney and medical marijuana patient who spoke during a committee hearing last week. “We don’t have the resources here that other places have.”

Richmond currently allows permits for up to six pot shops but only three are operating due to strict zoning restrictions and also pushback by residents who are uncomfortable with a dispensary opening near their neighborhood.

According to a Contra Costa Times report from last year, the four dispensaries that were operating in Richmond at that time accounted for the highest number of marijuana shops per capita in the Bay Area.

But marijuana advocates say that does not mean patients have had adequate access to their medicine. Police Chief Chris Magnus has also said having three unused permits for dispensaries is costing the city in much-needed tax revenue. The city last year estimated revenue per dispensary to be about $200,000 annually.

“I really hope we reconsider the permitting and zoning costs as well as ways for us to open the door for the other three permits,” said Sarah Shrader of Americans for Safe Access. “I think that will be helpful for patients to have more access and more areas available.”

Dispensaries are zoned for shopping malls and centers, with examples including the Holistic Healing Center operating in the Vista del Mar Village Shopping Center and the 7 Stars Holistic Healing Center in Pacific East Mall.

Locating them anywhere else has been difficult, and permit holders who have been unable to open shop have had to shell out or owe tens of thousands of dollars in quarterly fees to keep their permits.

A past issue has been reluctance from landlords who fear federal enforcement, but advocates say in recent years landlords have been more willing due to an easing of enforcement.

However, there remains resistance from neighbors who fear the dispensaries will bring a bad element into their neighborhood. Councilmembers Nat Bates and Corky Booze say the dispensaries that are currently open are unassuming and have not attracted crime.

There have been proposals to allow some of the remaining dispensaries to open in commercial corridors such as Macdonald Avenue, 23rd Street and San Pablo Avenue. However, one permit holder who is trying to locate in a light-industrial zone in Point Richmond is still facing significant opposition from the community.

But advocates say finding locations for dispensaries is not the only problem. Some believe medical marijuana dispensary regulations should not be handled by the Richmond Police Department, as it currently is, but by a possibly lower-cost task force staffed with fewer regulators who have a better understanding of industry best practices.