An association of medical marijuana collectives will unveil a proposed ballot measure this week for the city of San Diego that would create operating zones and standards, establish a registration system, impose a cost-recovery fee and levy a tax on storefront dispensaries.
Citizens for Patient Rights, in connection with the Patient Care Association, plans to announce the effort amid a coordinated campaign to shutdown medical marijuana dispensaries across California.
Scores of local collectives have shuttered in the eight weeks since U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy warned that marijuana sales and distribution were illegal under federal law and that landlords risk criminal prosecution and potential loss of their property if the outlets did not close. City Attorney Jan Goldsmith has methodically sued collectives in civil court for allegedly violating local zoning laws.
Representatives with the nonprofit association and its political action committee admit there’s little they could do to slow down the federal crackdown. But they said passing city regulations were a crucial component of their mission to provide safe access to medicinal cannabis while respecting community desires such as ensuring public safety, preventing diversion of the drug for recreational use and keeping collectives away from where children congregate.
“We believe there needs to be an ordinance in which case collectives can operate legitimately and service the patients that we need to service,” said Greg Shultz, a director with the Patient Care Association. “We need rules that are responsible and respectable and, after months of outreach, that’s what we’ve come up with.”
Critics of enacting local regulations contend they have been exploited elsewhere by a pervasive and profit-driven industry. They also maintain that marijuana ends up in the hands of children and that its distribution spurs neighborhood crime.
“The best education voters could have about whether to allow pot shops has been the last two years,” said Scott Chipman, chairman of San Diegans for Safe Neighborhoods. “What has to be done to protect neighborhoods and teens, the proponents of these businesses are not likely to allow.
“Regardless of whether there is a city ordinance for pot shops, we will expect and encourage the federal agencies to continue their enforcement.”
The ballot measure, drafted in consultation with neighborhood councils, community planning groups and other stakeholders, would require dispensaries to operate away from residences and at least 600 feet from sensitive areas where children gather such as schools and playgrounds. It would spell out requirements for security at dispensaries, rules for their appearance and mandate that personnel submit to background checks.
Collectives also would agree to reimburse the city for costs to oversee the program and have added an incentive for voters in a supplemental sales tax on themselves that could only be used locally. Proponents have not settled on a tax rate.
Many cities and counties have struggled to deal with the rapid mushrooming of dispensaries since state voters approved marijuana for medical use in 1996. Municipalities that waited until recently to rein in collectives, such as San Diego and Los Angeles, have been hard pressed to gain support for their legislation from collectives because the new rules often require many — if not all — of them to shut down and apply for operating permits.
In San Diego, collectives had been in legal limbo since city officials determined in 2009 that they didn’t fit within any of the existing zones and would no longer be issued a business license. Neither Goldsmith nor San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders pressed for enforcement while the City Council worked to draft an ordinance that would determine where dispensaries could locate.
The council approved such an ordinance in April, but repealed it three months later after Citizens for Patient Rights, the Patient Care Association and the California Cannabis Coalition mounted a successful referendum signature drive. The groups objected to the legislation in part because it would have required every dispensary to close and then would relegate them to far-flung industrial areas.
The association then urged Goldsmith to hold back while they crafted an ordinance of their own to present to the council. Then, on the day they planned to present the proposed regulations to various city officials, federal prosecutors announced the statewide crackdown.
Since, 139 of 222 medical marijuana outlets in the region — many of them in the city of San Diego — had closed through last week. The City Attorney’s Office also has filed lawsuits this year against at least 88 dispensaries, with stipulated agreements, temporary restraining orders or injunctions to close 48 and the balance pending future hearings, as of mid-November.
Cynara Velazquez, a representative for the dispensary association, was critical of the amount of resources the City Attorney’s Office has devoted to going after businesses that she said were acting in full compliance with California law.
A 2009 poll showed a majority of city residents supportive of allowing dispensaries, said Alex Kreit, a law professor at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego.
“But they really want very tight regulations on them,” said Kreit, head of the city’s now-defunct task force on medical marijuana. “They don’t want them to be anywhere under the sun.”
Goldsmith has said he doesn’t choose enforcement based on his personal feelings, politics or intimidation. The city attorney also said he would hold off on the flow of legal action if that were requested by city policymakers.
The proposed ballot measure comes after a court of appeal in Los Angeles ruled that Long Beach could not approve rules allowing dispensaries because marijuana was illegal under federal law. In another case, a three-judge panel in the 4th District Court of Appeal in Riverside ruled that state law permits cities to ban collectives.
“I think it’s positive even for cities that want to regulate in this area,” said Jeffrey Dunn, an attorney who argued the case for Riverside. “Those two decisions kind of work together to establish some clarity for now.”
Jessica McElfresh, an attorney who helped draft the ordinance, said the group took into consideration the appeals court decision in Long Beach.
The city of San Diego would be responsible for broad oversight of the industry including determining whether applicants fit local zoning requirements before entering them into a registry. A third-party industry association would be tasked with verification of the operational requirements.
“We know this is going to be hard, but we are not going anywhere,” McElfresh said. “We are going to meet the task.”
Proponents would have 180 days to collect 62,057 valid signatures from registered voters to qualify the measure for the November 2012 ballot.