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County to prohibit dispensaries in unincorporated areas

June 20, 2009 - 2:39 pm

On June 23, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors will vote to implement an ID-card program for medical marijuana users, after unsuccessfully challenging the state law that requires the cards all the way up to the Supreme Court. On Friday, a new item was added to the agenda: supervisors will also vote (whether) to ban medical marijuana dispensaries in the county’s unincorporated areas (any part of the county that’s outside a city’s jurisdiction). From the board’s agenda:

The for-profit sale of medical marijuana is illegal. In an effort to protect unincorporated neighborhoods from the serious negative impacts which medical marijuana dispensaries may cause, action is needed to make certain that the County’s Zoning Ordinance is clear regarding their establishment. The proliferation of these dispensaries is a threat to public safety, public health, and community character. Today’s action will direct the Chief Administrative Officer to work with County Counsel to draft an ordinance for the Board’s approval prohibiting medical marijuana dispensaries from operating within the unincorporated area.

Indeed, anyone making a penny over what it costs to cultivate pot for medical use is violating state law. In August 2008, California Attorney General Jerry Brown issued medical marijuana guidelines that laid out the only way patients could legally acquire marijuana: grow it themselves or join a collective or co-op and “acquire marijuana only from their constituent members.” According to the guidelines, “the cycle should be a closed-circuit of marijuana cultivation and consumption with no purchases or sales to or from non-members.”

Some cities have passed their own laws regulating (or banning) dispensaries. L.A. passed a moratorium on new dispensaries opening up after 2007. The city of Oakland, probably the most progressive on this issue, is looking at ways to make money off of them. The Oakland City Council estimates it could add $200,000 to $400,000 to its general fund annually by imposing a higher business-tax rate on dispensaries.

The city of San Diego, meanwhile, hasn’t touched the dispensary issue despite calls from advocates to establish clear local guidelines. A few years ago, the city became a dispensary ground zero, precisely because of the lack of oversight, with dozens of dispensaries moving in until the DEA finally got involved. Because of the Obama administration’s position that shutting down medical marijuana establishments isn’t a priority, dispensaries are creeping back into business.

The county’s proposed policy raises some interesting questions: what about dispensaries that can prove they’re not-for-profit? What about currently existing dispensaries? Zoning rules, I believe, can’t be retroactive (any attorneys out there who can answer this on a weekend?) And what about allowing them, imposing strong security requirements and setting up a tax rate like Oakland’s proposing to make a few extra bucks for the ol’ general fund?

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