San Diego became the 10th county in the state to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries Wednesday, joining a new wave of governments choosing to limit, but still allow, pot sales within their boundaries.
In restricting dispensaries to an estimated 16 sites in unincorporated parts of the county, supervisors ignored a plea from one speaker who wanted a ban and many who complained the regulations amounted to one.
Increasingly, California cities and counties are faced with two options on pot shops: regulate or refuse.
Nine of California’s 58 counties ban medical marijuana dispensaries outright, up from two a year ago. Thirteen have temporary moratoriums in place as they consider permanent options, according to Americans for Safe Access, an advocacy group for medical marijuana.
Among cities, 35 have ordinances regulating dispensaries, 101 have temporary moratoriums and 132 have bans.
Although a voter initiative legalized marijuana for medical use in 1996, federal law still bans it and local government preferences have made access to it a patchwork across the state.
In San Diego County, the cities of El Cajon, Escondido, San Marcos and Vista ban medical marijuana dispensaries. Chula Vista, Imperial Beach, National City, Oceanside and Santee have temporary moratoriums barring new ones from opening, according to a June 7 county grand jury report.
Forewoman Victoria Stubblefield said the grand jury has recently fielded more citizen complaints about the lack of clear guidelines for medical marijuana dispensaries than for any other subject. It’s one reason the grand jury is recommending the county and each city license, regulate and inspect medical marijuana dispensaries.
“We need to be very clear about what the process is because of the proliferation of the new storefronts that are springing up right and left that might not be legitimate medical marijuana dispensaries,” Stubblefield said. “No one wants that except for the illegal operators.”
The grand jury report estimated there are at least 5,000 medical marijuana patients in San Diego County, and it’s probable there are considerably more. Medical marijuana advocates say there could be 60,000.
Getting a handle on how many dispensaries have opened is no easier, but websites link to dozens countywide. For example, Weedmaps.com lists 13 in East County, 31 in North County and 25 in downtown San Diego.
In El Cajon, Mayor Mark Lewis said his city is right to bar dispensaries.
“I don’t think our citizens will put up with it,” Lewis said. “If anybody wants it, they certainly can find it in another community, either that or out on the street.”
Since voters legalized medical marijuana, state regulation has caused confusion, as has prosecution. Some of the ensuing clashes have been highly publicized. Locally, prosecutions of medical marijuana collective operators ended with acquittals in December and March.
Statewide, people familiar with the issue are watching a legal challenge of Anaheim’s ban on dispensaries. An appeals court ruling is expected this summer and could have far-reaching effects on how governments handle medical marijuana in California.
In San Diego, the county’s attorney said Wednesday that Anaheim’s ban won’t hold up in court, and supervisors voted 4-1 to allow dispensaries in industrial zones at least 1,000 feet from homes, churches, schools parks and other dispensaries.
Some critics complained the sites left open to dispensaries weren’t practical and that the oversight and enforcement of the operating regulations by the Sheriff’s Department amounted to an invasion of privacy for each patient.
At San Diego City Hall, a proposal to regulate dispensaries is progressing with the help of a citizens’ task force chaired by associate professor Alex Kreit, who teaches classes on criminal law and drug crimes at Thomas Jefferson School of Law. He said cities and counties are starting to realize that regulations work.
One reason, Kreit said, is that 1,000 dispensaries opened in Los Angeles as it waited to address the issue.
“I think that cities and counties, especially the larger ones, are gravitating toward regulations, and I think that’s where they should be,” Kreit said. “The vast majority of people in the state support medical marijuana. They don’t think that patients should become criminals to get the medicine they need.”
Medical marijuana was the subject of a forum for Democratic candidates for state attorney general in February. Every candidate said it has gotten out of hand.
“There are more marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles than there are Starbucks ,” candidate Chris Kelly said.
Last month, the city of Los Angeles told more than 400 medical marijuana dispensaries they had to shut down by June 7. Representatives of 174 dispensaries have since filed paperwork with the city to stay open.
Meanwhile, in California’s third-largest city behind Los Angeles and San Diego, the San Jose City Council took its first steps to regulate dispensaries this week, imposing a 500-foot setback from schools and homes.
At Wednesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting in San Diego, two dozen speakers railed against the regulations being considered and only a few said they support the restrictions.
Roger Morgan, executive director of Coalition for a Drug-Free California, said dispensaries should be banned. He said government’s two largest responsibilities are protecting people and managing tax dollars.
“Neither is possible by legalizing or proliferating the use of marijuana for any purpose,” he said.
Lawyer Anthony Silvia said the county’s decision to limit the sites amounted to a ban, offering “symbolic access” to unusable sites.
When county supervisors weighed in on the policy, Chairwoman Pam Slater-Price noted that with so few sites available, the dispensaries would be out of the way for many patients.
“Hopefully, they would take their medicine after they arrive back home, for the safety of everyone on the road,” she said.
Alone in his opposition, Supervisor Ron Roberts said the policy reduced the number of sites to “next to none.”
But Supervisor Greg Cox told the crowd, “If there are not sufficient medical marijuana distributors in the county area, there are still other options available to you because there are 18 cities that are dealing with this issue.”
BY MATTHEW T. HALL, UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 23, 2010