Restrictive new ordinance passes 4-1, sharply limits sites where dispensaries may locate
“Virtually all of them are either undeveloped land, cement factories, mining operations, even land that’s zoned for treatment of radioactive materials,” -- Kate Valentine of Americans for Safe Access
July 2, 2010 (San Diego) – A restrictive new ordinance passed Wednesday by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors will sharply limit locations where medical marijuana dispensaries are allowed and make it extremely costly for operators. The measure passed by a four-to-one vote. Supervisor Ron Roberts cast the lone dissenting vote.
“I think we’re violating the spirit of the law,” said Roberts, referring to the ballot initiative approved by California voters 14 years ago to legalize medical marijuana.
The new regulations limit dispensaries to industrial zones and require an armed license, video monitoring and license fees of up to $20,000. Supervisor Dianne Jacob introduced an amendment which further restricts allowable locations by increasing minimum distance between dispensaries and homes from a proposed 500 feet to 1,000 feet, as well as raising distances from churches, parks and schools from 600 to 1,000 feet. These are the same distances required for strip clubs.
County planners contend that there are at least 15 potential sites that could meet those guidelines, including areas near Gillespie Field and the Ramona Airport, as well as freeway-close locations in Alpine, Borrego Springs, Campo, and Julian.
But there’s a big catch.
“Virtually all of them are either undeveloped land, cement factories, mining operations, even land that’s zoned for treatment of radioactive materials,” said Kate Valentine of Americans for Safe Access, a group that supports access for medical marijuana patients.
There are no buildings on the sites, Valentine added. So add costs of building a new structure to the already steep price of opening a dispensary in the unincorporated area.
Supervisors Pam Slater-Price and Greg Cox acknowledged that patients may have to drive long distances to get their medical marijuana prescriptions filled in cities within the county where permitting is more lenient. Slater-Price cautioned patients to refrain from taking their medications until after they drive home. Supervisor Horn recently expressed frustration that federal law prohibits distribution of medical marijuana in pharmacies.
San Diego’s Board of Supervisors have fought a long battle against medical marijuana access. In 2005, Supervisors Bill Horn, Slater-Price and Jacob voted to oppose a state law that required counties to create medical marijuana registries and issue I.D. cards to patients. The County’s district attorney also helped federal drug agents crack down on dispensaries locally.
Supervisors used taxpayer money to file a lawsuit in 2006 seeking to overturn Proposition 215, the measure passed by both state and county voters a decade earlier. The County lost its case in court but fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which last year refused to consider the County’s appeal.
Critics of medical marijuana dispensaries contend that some are fronts for illicit drug use. Strolling down the boardwalk at Venice beach, the air is redolent with the aroma of weed. A hawker outside a marijuana clinic advises passersby that “the doctor is in.” Several speakers from anti-drug groups asked Supervisors to ban marijuana cooperatives outright, an option that County Counsel has said would not be legal.
Where to strike a balance between reasonable access for patients suffering from cancer or other medical conditions while preventing access to unauthorized individuals remains a bone of contention. At Wednesday’s hearing, numerous medical marijuana patients testified that medical marijuana provided their only source of relief from painful and debilitating symptoms –with fewer side effects than other prescription pain medication options. Medical marijuana is also useful in alleviating nausea among chemotherapy patients.
The County’s new ordinance requires dispensary operators to maintain accurate records of transactions including names and contact information of suppliers. It also prohibits sale of foods or beverages containing marijuana. The clinics would be regulated by the Sheriff, a choice some medical marijuana advocates have also criticized, arguing that the Department of Health and Human Services would be a preferably regulatory entity to have oversight over dispensaries.
“I’m more convinced than ever that what we’re doing is the wrong thing,” said Roberts, who also cast the lone dissenting vote in 2009 against drafting the controversial ordinance. In casting that vote, he stated, “At some point, some of the leaders of this community need to accept that (Proposition) 215 is the law.” Roberts’ opponent in the November election, Steve Whitburn, also supports patients’ access to medical marijuana and opposes the County’s tough new ordinance.
But Jacob insisted that the Board has taken the high road. “What the staff brought before us is the best we can do,” she concluded.