Medical Marijuana Distributors Multiply As San Jose Weighs Ordinance

By chillinwill · Nov 24, 2009 ·
  1. chillinwill
    Inside an unremarkable three-story office building near Santana Row, Richard Noonan waited last week in the San Jose Cannabis Buyers Collective lobby for the marijuana he uses to treat symptoms of palsy.

    Not long ago, getting the drug required a trek to San Francisco. But now, the Campbell resident can choose from multiple storefront providers in San Jose.

    "It seems there's a lot more openness toward this," Noonan said.

    Indeed, when Councilman Pierluigi Oliverio last month proposed the city regulate and tax pot clubs, the San Jose Cannabis Buyers Collective -- which opened four months ago -- was the only dispensary city officials knew of. Now there are at least two others, plus a couple operations offering delivery service. And others are looking to enter the market.

    Suddenly, it seems as if medicinal marijuana dispensaries are sprouting everywhere, boosted by the Obama administration's decision to stop cracking down on medical pot in states that have legalized it. City leaders around California are scrambling.

    Gilroy, Santa Clara, Los Gatos and Danville have rushed to enact bans, while liberal havens such as Santa Cruz, long friendly toward medical marijuana, have moved to limit dispensaries.

    Many see San Jose's move to consider regulating a limited number of medical marijuana dispensaries as a welcome mat, and they're rushing to get a foot in the door.

    "We just feel it's the right time to look into this," said Tom Adler, a San Jose resident who says he uses marijuana to treat symptoms of diabetes treatment. He now wants to open his own dispensary.

    Although San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and City Attorney Rick Doyle made clear last week they don't believe medical marijuana dispensaries are allowed under current city law, the city hasn't yet tried to shut those now in operation, as nearby Santa Clara and Gilroy are doing.

    "It's one city where there's no ban or moratorium," Adler said. "A lot of people are trying to scramble to stake their claim, so to speak, and I'm one of them."

    It's been 13 years since voters made California the first state in the nation to legalize medical use of marijuana. More than a dozen states now have such laws. But suppliers long have been stymied by federal authorities who have maintained that marijuana is a narcotic with no legitimate medical purpose.

    San Jose in 1998 approved a zoning ordinance to accommodate medical marijuana dispensaries. But the director of the former Santa Clara County Medical Cannabis Center was prosecuted in the late 1990s after city police alleged it sold marijuana to people without a doctor's recommendation.

    San Jose dropped the medicinal marijuana provision when the city updated its zoning laws in 2002, and since then, local residents with doctors' recommendations for the drug have largely been left to rely on providers in San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland and Santa Cruz.

    Then things changed this year. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder indicated in March that federal authorities would target medical marijuana distributors only where they violate both state and federal laws, and last month, he issued a sweeping directive to that effect.

    Although cities and counties still maintain the right to restrict medicinal marijuana dispensaries just as they do liquor stores, card clubs and adult theaters, the operations have multiplied statewide this year -- often in defiance of local officials.

    Los Angeles, which two years ago adopted a moratorium limiting the number of medical marijuana dispensaries to 186, has seen hundreds open since. Estimates say as many as 1,000 operate in the city -- some advertising with billboards and neon signs. Prosecutors now are moving to shut down dispensaries, arguing that state law does not allow the drug to be sold, only distributed at cost.

    Oliverio proposed that San Jose adopt regulations based on those in other cities that would allow an as-yet unspecified number of medicinal marijuana dispensaries to operate in industrial areas of the city. Dispensaries would pay a $10,000 permit fee and a 3 percent special tax, with proceeds going toward police and road maintenance. And the drug could not be used on-site; none of the three currently operating allow on-site use.

    Local dispensary operators say they support the proposal. As for the possibility of being shut down by authorities in the meantime, Kit Tran, who operates the nonprofit South Bay Apothecary Collective in a North San Jose technology park, said he's hired a lawyer.

    "We understand the risks," Tran said, "I think we're OK."

    The mayor's office noted that city code enforcement is generally driven by complaints.

    Donna Brodersen, a restaurant owner who lives across from the South Bay Cannabis Buyers Collective on Monroe Street, said she was unaware it was there but doesn't mind having it as a neighbor. "It's fine with me," she said.

    It could be months before San Jose decides on any ordinance. City officials are expected to report back to a council committee in January on what steps would be involved in preparing something for the council to consider.

    Oliverio urged quick action. "Whether we do anything or not," he said, "they will come."

    John Woolfolk
    November 23, 2009
    San Jose Mercury News

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