CITIES LOOK TO BLOCK POT CLUBS
Officials across the state say they fear a lack of regulations could make new medical marijuana sites magnets for drug dealing and crime.
Cities across California are acting to prevent new medical marijuana clubs from opening, with officials saying they fear that a lack of regulations in state law could make the clubs magnets for illegal drug dealing and crime.
In the last two months, San Francisco, Modesto, Ontario, Huntington Beach and West Hollywood have imposed moratoriums until officials can devise rules to govern marijuana clubs. The moratoriums do not affect existing clubs; San Francisco already has 37.
"There's been some extremely negative experiences in other cities,"
said Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard, whose city will consider an interim ban later this month, though it has no marijuana clubs now.
"My biggest concern would be because zoning rules have not been developed, we might find ourselves permitting a dispensary without rules that would assure us it won't become a neighborhood problem," he said.
In 1996, California voters passed Proposition 215, which legalized the use of marijuana for medical treatment. Since then, cannabis clubs have opened in many parts of the state to distribute the drug. But the federal government, which has not shifted its own policy against marijuana use, has raided pot clubs throughout the state.
As cities now consider restricting new clubs, many municipal officials are looking to the Northern California town of Rocklin, which banned the clubs outright late last year. Rocklin officials have produced a report widely distributed around the state citing examples of petty crime, pot DUIs and illegal drug dealing around existing clubs in Hayward, Oakland and Roseville.
Though some cities say they are just interested in temporary freezes on the clubs that would allow them to fix problems or create regulations, other cities are pondering permanent bans.
The prospect of a permanent ban worries advocates of medical marijuana, some of whom say they are not opposed to temporary moratoriums.
"There's a sense that there needs to be regulations and controls to ensure the dispensaries provide quality services and are being good neighbors," said Daniel Abrahamson, director of legal affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance in Oakland.
"But simply prohibiting them leads to bad results for everyone," he added. "If you permanently ban dispensaries, you're essentially driving them underground, and you lose all ability at regulating them."
San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi said the city remains committed to medical and therapeutic uses of marijuana. He said he opposes any permanent bans on such establishments. "A compassionate city would open up to these clubs," Mirkarimi said.
But San Francisco experienced growing pains from its largely unregulated clubs. That has led the city to keep new clubs from moving in until regulations are in place. The city decided cannabis clubs should be regulated like other businesses.
"Why should they operate in the shadows when we can legitimize them by developing regulations that make them part of our mainstream culture?"
Rocklin Police Chief Mark Siemens cited federal law in pushing for the ban in his town. The bedroom community of about 43,000 recently had been approached by people who wanted to open a club, he said.
The City Council voted to add medical pot clubs to a short list of businesses prohibited in the city, including kennels, trash disposal sites and wrecking yards.
Since then, city officials have sent copies of their ordinance to more than 50 interested cities, Siemens said.
"We thought the simplest process was to ban this type of business because it is federally illegal to distribute marijuana under whatever guise," Siemens said. "We didn't want to be in a position of using local policing and zoning authorities to license or screen an illegal business venture."
That position was criticized by advocates for medical pot use.
"I find it interesting that Rocklin is a city in California, but it wants to adhere to federal law instead of state law," said Mike Corral, agricultural director for Wo\Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana in Santa Cruz. "They should be adhering to California law."
In November, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case on whether the federal government's zero-tolerance policy trumps the medical marijuana laws in California and 10 other states. A decision is expected later this spring, and leaders of some cities say they want to wait until then before deciding whether to ban clubs.
"I prefer not to have them in the community at all," said Ontario Mayor Pro Tem Alan Wapner, whose city adopted a moratorium. "If the federal court comes out against them, I'd like to pass a motion to ban them completely."
San Francisco's Mirkarimi said he feels otherwise.
"I think the ruling will be adverse, but I don't think it will affect our existing clubs," Mirkarimi said. "But that's why I'm feeling, as well as others in the City Hall family, that we want to take care of our house and protect what we have now, just in case there is state or federal intervention."
In Huntington Beach, which has no medical pot businesses, zoning restrictions approved in February would require 500 feet of separation between the clubs and parks, schools or places of worship. The dispensaries also would have to be more than 750 feet from each other, said Police Chief Ken Small.
"We wanted to be more proactive, as opposed to reactive like other cities," said Small, adding that the temporary ban has been lifted.
Richard Bruckner, the planning director for Pasadena, said he favors tight controls.
"I would hope they would be regulated to the extent that a pharmacy is regulated, and that there were prescriptions and other safeguards,"
Bruckner said. "But without that, people are nervous."
Corral of the medical marijuana alliance said he thinks the issue of crime related to the clubs is overstated. However, he said, regulation may help the clubs.
"I think it will make them more legitimate in the eyes of the general population, some of who equate a cannabis club with drug dealing,"
Corral said. "As with anything, there's positives and negatives, but in the long run, I think it's more positive."
Times staff writer Rachana Rathi contributed to this report.