Recent Articles

Recent Comments

« | Main | »

Across California, there are at least 400 known medical marijuana dispensaries

By Hempology | October 1, 2007

Contra Costa Times, CA
30 Sep 2007
Harrison Sheppard


More Than 10 Years After Voters Spoke, a Surge in Dispensaries Has Cities and Counties Scrambling to Regulate, Fend Off DEA

Highly publicized raids last month on three medical marijuana outlets in downtown San Mateo were the latest example of the continuing clash between state and federal officials over medicinal cannabis.

And that clash is reverberating through communities across the state.

More than a decade after Californians voted to legalize medical marijuana, an explosion of dispensaries and patients has cities and counties scrambling to regulate the operations. 

In San Mateo County, the Aug.  29 raids spurred county officials to begin drafting an ordinance to regulate the clinics.

That process will likely take months, county Counsel Mike Murphy told MediaNews earlier this month.

The raids surprised San Mateo Mayor Jack Matthews, who said he felt uneasy that four dispensaries in the city — the three that were raided, and one that shut its doors after the Drug Enforcement Agency arrived — had “popped up, seemingly overnight,” he said in an earlier interview.

The situation was similar to one in Alameda County in 2005, when the growth of medical cannabis dispensaries in unincorporated areas led officials to draft a ordinance limiting the number of outlets there to three — down from seven that were operating in the area in 2004.

Earlier this week, the city of Livermore joined Dublin and Pleasanton in banning medical marijuana dispensaries, saying the bad elements that such facilities bring to the area outweigh any public benefit.  Many Contra Costa cities have banned dispensaries, including Concord, Antioch and Pleasant Hill.

And in Los Angeles — where the number of dispensaries soared from just a handful to more than 200 in the past two years — city officials recently passed a moratorium on new clinics until they can develop guidelines.

Hundreds of other cities up and down California have no regulations on medical marijuana dispensaries, including at least 28 where clinics or delivery services are operating, according to a MediaNews analysis.

Law enforcement officials say a lack of local oversight could allow dispensaries to open near schools or parks, with no way for authorities to prevent it.

“I think they could easily be surprised,” said Modesto police Chief Roy Wasden, who heads a statewide task force on medical marijuana.  “They’re not prepared for the issues that will surround dispensaries opening up.”

According to Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group, 27 cities and eight counties in California have ordinances allowing and regulating dispensaries.

An additional 56 cities, including Dublin, Fremont, Pleasanton and South San Francisco, and three counties have enacted bans ( which some advocates maintain are illegal ), and 80 cities and seven counties, including Contra Costa, have imposed temporary moratoriums, according to Americans for Safe Access.

In June 2005, Alameda County’s Board of Supervisors passed a law limiting the number of marijuana dispensaries in unincorporated areas and establishing a selection process.

Under the law, one dispensary is allowed to operate in each of the three zones created within the county’s unincorporated areas: Ashland, San Lorenzo and Castro Valley.  The new ordinance forced a handful of dispensaries in the county to shut down.

Each of the three dispensaries with county permits must renew the permits every two years.  The renewals are reviewed by county health and zoning departments and approved by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office.

According to Capt.  Dale Amaral of the sheriff’s office, the county’s ordinance is set to be reviewed by the board of supervisors sometime in the next several months — something the board asked to do when it approved the rules in 2005.

As part of the review, the sheriff’s office and the county Department of Environmental Health have proposed two significant changes to the law — one would allow the three licensed dispensaries in unincorporated Alameda County to carry hashish, and the other would outlaw those dispensaries from carrying any food made with marijuana.

The remainder of the state’s 478 incorporated cities and 58 counties have not addressed the issue.

Across California, there are at least 400 known medical marijuana dispensaries — and likely hundreds more that are unpublicized.

About 15,000 Californians have registered for state medical-marijuana identification cards.  Because the cards are voluntary and not required to obtain medical marijuana, officials cannot say with certainty how many people actually are seeking the drug.

Pro-legalization groups estimate there are 150,000 to 200,000 medical-marijuana users in California — up from about 30,000 five years ago.

Law enforcement agencies remain concerned about the potential for unregulated dispensaries, with their stashes of drugs and cash, to attract crime to neighborhoods.

And some of the facilities, they say, are simply profitmaking enterprises that sell at stiff prices to healthy youths and the seriously ill alike.

The Los Angeles Police Department has reported an increase in crime near some facilities and has received complaints about activities, including one dispensary handing out fliers for free marijuana samples to students at Grant High School in Valley Glen.

Alameda County authorities noted the same spike in crime near some facilities in unincorporated areas.

Medical-marijuana advocates and some academic experts, however, say such concerns are overblown.

“I think that’s something that law enforcement is using as a tactic to spread fear,” said Kris Hermes, a spokesman for Americans for Safe Access.

“And to intimidate city and county officials from doing what’s right and what’s just, which is to establish protections for these facilities and, if necessary, regulate them in some sensible way.”

The Reason Foundation issued a report earlier this year saying that marijuana-related crimes have decreased since Proposition 215 — allowing medical use of marijuana in California — was passed by voters in 1996.

“Common sense would say there’s no reason why a well-regulated dispensary would add to ambient crime in the neighborhood at all,” said report author Skaidra Smith-Heisters.

The only factor that might contribute to crime, she said, “would be the fact that they’re operating without any ground rules right now.”

Although the Bay Area was the first to embrace medical marijuana — and its cities were the first to figure out how to handle dispensaries — the fastest growth has shifted to Los Angeles, and especially the San Fernando Valley.

Three years ago, the city had perhaps one or two known dispensaries.  Today, there are at least 150 listed in directories maintained by advocacy groups.  City and law enforcement officials say there are as many as 200 to 400.

About half of the city’s known dispensaries are in the San Fernando Valley, meaning a region that has about 5 percent of the state’s population has 19 percent of its medical marijuana facilities — more, in fact, than the entire Bay Area from San Jose to Marin County.

The Los Angeles City Council recently placed a moratorium on the opening of new facilities while it figures out how to deal with the growth.

Council members are generally sympathetic to dispensaries that are seen as helping the seriously ill, but they want to be able to regulate them and weed out the bad actors.

Although California voters legalized medical marijuana in 1996, growth has occurred only recently because there had been confusion about how the law worked.  In 2003, the state enacted legislation spelling out a series of specific regulations.

The U.S.  Supreme Court in 2005 essentially confirmed the validity of Prop.  215, but it also upheld the federal government’s right to prosecute marijuana patients under federal law.

Escalated tensions have followed those rulings.

Angel Raich of Oakland and others sued the government in October 2002 to prevent any interference with their medical marijuana use.

The Supreme Court, in a May 2001 ruling on the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative, said there’s no collective medical necessity exception to the federal ban, which defines marijuana as having no valid medical use.

But it didn’t rule on constitutional questions underlying the medical marijuana debate, so Raich and her lawyers tailored a case to raise those issues.

In June 2005, the U.S.  Supreme Court ruled 6-3 to uphold the federal ban, finding that even marijuana grown in backyards for personal medical use can affect or contribute to the illegal interstate market for marijuana and so is within Congress’ constitutional reach.

The case was remanded for review on other issues, but after a defeat in the 9th U.S.  Circuit Court of Appeals — which ruled in March that medical necessity doesn’t shield medical-marijuana users from federal prosecution, and medical marijuana use isn’t a fundamental right protected by the Constitution’s guarantee of due process of law — Raich dropped the case in May.

Oakland also is ground zero in another high-profile case demonstrating the clash between state and federal law.

The self-proclaimed “Guru of Ganja” Ed Rosenthal, 62, of Oakland was convicted in May in federal court of three felonies for growing thousands of marijuana plants for patients.

Rosenthal, a columnist for “High Times” magazine, said he was acting as an agent of the city in growing the cannabis for the Oakland Cannabis buyers Cooperative.

Although Rosenthal was ultimately convicted, he received no further sentence beyond the one day in jail he had already served.  He has vowed to appeal his conviction as a miscarriage of justice.

About nine states have laws permitting medical marijuana, according to Rosalie Pacula, a drug policy analyst with the RAND Corp.

But California has attracted more attention from the federal government, in part, she said, because its laws are looser than other states’, allowing patients to possess larger quantities and allowing dispensaries to flourish.

“If you’re really interested in protecting patients, keep the quantities low,” Pacula said.

Some in Congress are trying to get the DEA to back off, including Reps.  Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach, and Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., who support a bill that would block funding for prosecutions of medical-marijuana patients.

Without such protections, businesses that believe they are operating legitimately under California state law still keep an eye out for federal agents and often try to maintain a low profile.

Holistic Alternative Inc., a nonprofit dispensary in Canoga Park, opened three months ago and finds it hard to attract new patients because it can’t advertise.

Instead, it and other facilities rely on Internet advertising — a more discreet option than hanging a big sign out front.

David, a co-owner who asked that his last name be withheld, said he founded the dispensary with a partner who uses marijuana for medicinal purposes and wanted to help others.

“I would hope they would leave us alone because most of our patients are actually really sick,” he said.  “Probably 90 ( percent ) to 95 percent of my patients are really sick and do need the medicine.

“If they don’t get it from us, I can’t see these older ladies and gentlemen in their 60s and 70s walking around getting drugs off the street.”

Topics: Articles | Comments Off

Comments are closed.