San Diego council to pursue ordinance allowing medical marijuana dispensaries within city limits

By Joe Tash

The San Diego City Council decided Monday, April 22, to take another try at passing an ordinance allowing medical marijuana dispensaries within city limits after listening to more than three hours of public testimony on both sides of the issue.

Opponents of the proposed ordinance said they were worried that allowing the dispensaries will lead to more marijuana use by teenagers, while supporters said the storefronts are needed to provide safe access to marijuana for people suffering with cancer and other maladies.

The council’s unanimous vote comes about a year and a half after the last attempt to enact a medical marijuana ordinance failed. The council passed an ordinance in 2011, only to repeal it later in the year when opponents of the law found it too restrictive, and gathered enough signatures to place the issue before voters.

At Monday’s meeting, the council considered a proposed ordinance put forward by Mayor Bob Filner that would have expanded the areas within the city where dispensaries would be allowed. Instead, the council directed City Attorney Jan Goldsmith to draft a new ordinance “nearly identical” to the one that was repealed in 2011.

“I think it’s a good place to start and we might as well not reinvent the wheel,” said Ninth District Councilwoman Marti Emerald.

What the council should not be debating, Emerald said, is whether marijuana is beneficial to people with certain medical conditions, such as those undergoing chemotherapy treatment for cancer.

“We must make a commitment to compassionate use. This debate is over in California,” she said, referring to a measure approved by the state’s voters in 1996 that legalized marijuana for medicinal use.

Council President Todd Gloria praised the mayor for bringing the issue forward, and said he thought the last ordinance approved by the council was too restrictive.

“I do think it is far past time for us to do something in this direction,” Gloria said.

Filner’s proposed ordinance would have expanded the zones where dispensaries are allowed from only industrial areas to community commercial zones, which include small neighborhood shopping centers.

Filner said his proposal sought to balance access to medical marijuana with protecting public safety, a difficult task.

“We have tried to both increase the access for those who are suffering and increase protections for those who need them, mainly our children, and quality of life,” Filner said.

But First District Councilwoman Sherri Lightner said four of the six community planning groups in her North City district opposed the mayor’s expansion of permitted zones for dispensaries.

Among the changes they opposed, she said, was a change to a different kind of permit that would not have allowed community input.

“They are not supportive of the revisions,” Lightner said.

The council’s motion called for a study of all potential dispensary sites, to determine if the original version of the ordinance was so restrictive that it amounted to a “de facto ban,” as critics charged.

The council also requested a list of changes from the original ordinance:

• Dispensaries would have to be located at least 1,000 feet from “sensitive uses” such as schools, childcare centers, rehabilitation centers and other dispensaries, and at least 100 feet from residential zones.

• The mayor would be requested to identify the city departments responsible for issuing permits to dispensaries and enforcing their rules of operation.

• The mayor and city attorney would review issues related to fees or taxes that could be charged to dispensary operators.

Passions were strong on both sides of the issue as dozens of speakers came to the podium.

Marci Beckett of Pacific Beach said that if Filner’s ordinance were approved, dozens of new dispensaries will open up shop.

“It’s a bad message for our kids,” said Beckett. “The issue is not about sick people getting medicine. These dispensaries are making huge profits by selling to healthy recreational users.”

“Marijuana is not a medicine. I don’t think we should normalize it and try to sell it in storefronts,” said Nancy Logan.

Ken Cole, who runs the One-On-One Patients Center, a dispensary in downtown San Diego, said access is needed for people like himself, who have diseases such as diabetes and cancer.

“I’m telling you there are a huge number of people out there suffering from a wide variety of problems,” Cole said. “This is not a joke, this is not recreational, this is not lying around a park.”

“We are trying to produce something that will change the lives of people, give them quality of life,” Cole said.

The Torrey Hills Community Planning Board considered the proposed ordinance at its April 16 meeting, voting to oppose allowing dispensaries in community commercial zones such as the Torrey Hills Shopping Center.

In a letter to Lightner, the board said, “Allowing a medical marijuana facility in this shopping area would certainly encroach on the residential neighborhood. There are no buffers between the shopping center and residences directly across the street. Additionally, there is a school and park only 2 blocks to the north. Another school and park is approximately 1 block to the west.

“The board is opposed to broadening the ordinance for medical marijuana dispensaries from industrial to the community commercial zone,” said the letter, signed by planning board chairwoman Kathryn Burton.

Once the updated ordinance is drafted, community planning groups and other panels will have a chance to review it before it comes back to the council for consideration.