Council repeals San Diego medical marijuana rules

Medical marijuana shops in legal limbo after ordinance repealed
By Jen Lebron Kuhney, published on updated 7:35 p.m., July 25, 2011

Medical marijuana dispensaries within San Diego city limits are once again in legal limbo after the City Council voted Monday to repeal regulations that created — ever so briefly — a path to legitimacy for those businesses.

The council opted to rescind the rules they adopted four months ago rather than pay as much as $1 million on a public vote, a decision that was forced when a coalition of medical marijuana advocates collected enough signatures from registered voters to place a repeal on a future ballot.

The 6-2 council vote puts the contentious issue right back where it was when civic debate began two years ago: Medical marijuana collectives in San Diego are illegal. But, as before, it is unclear whether the city will take any action to shutter them.

This is the second time this year that the City Council has been forced to repeal legislation following a signature drive. In February, the panel reversed an ordinance that would have required an economic impact study for proposed supercenters after Walmart objected and quickly amassed signatures to trigger a public vote.

The city approved comprehensive — but heavily debated — rules on medical marijuana businesses in the spring that would have forced the city’s roughly 160 dispensaries to shut down and apply for operating permits. Cooperative owners and medical marijuana patients decried the rules for being too strict while some community leaders said anything short of an outright ban didn’t go far enough.

People on both sides of the debate urged the council on Monday to simply repeal the restrictions and avoid a costly election.

The repealed regulations dictated specific operating procedures for the collectives and required a 600-foot buffer zone between one another, as well as from schools, playgrounds, libraries, child-care and youth facilities, parks and churches.

Citizens for Patients Rights, a coalition of patients and providers submitted more than 46,000 signatures to the city in May to require a public vote on the new rules. That left the City Council with a choice: Repeal the ordinance or pay to put it on a ballot.

County Registrar of Voters Deborah Seiler estimated the election costs would be as much as $1 million — a price tag most council members said was too high for a measure that had strong opposition from such a wide spectrum of groups.

“Some people would vote against it because in their minds the ordinance went too far and was too permissive, others would vote against it because the ordinance didn’t go far enough and we would be back at square one,” Councilwoman Sherri Lightner said. “Given the cost of the election, it would be like sending close to a million dollars up in smoke.”

The decision leaves the city with no comprehensive policies regarding where or how a collective can operate legally.

Rachel Laing, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jerry Sanders, said it will be up to code compliance officers to investigate complaints against collectives and tell the owners what they need to do to address any problems.

Medical marijuana dispensaries are not a permitted use under current codes. The only way a dispensary could comply with city rules would be for it to shut its doors.

Whether the city enforces that law is another matter. Such code violations generally weren’t pursued before the ordinance was passed.

Eugene Davidovich, the local chapter coordinator for Americans for Safe Access, said he hopes to see medical marijuana advocates propose a new ordinance to the City Council or try to create new regulations through the city’s Planning Commission.

Davidovich said the new ordinance would likely be more in line with what an advisory marijuana task force recommended when the issue was being debated last summer. Those rules would differ from the repealed measure by allowing dispensaries in a wider variety of commercial and industrial zones, which medical marijuana advocates say are necessary to make sure the sickest patients have access to their medicine.

But the task force’s recommendations are far too broad for those who hope San Diego will follow the lead of a dozen California counties in banning dispensaries.

Councilman Carl DeMaio originally voted against the ordinance because he believed it did not go far enough. “There is a very difficult policy process that now we have to follow and … one potential outcome would be no law with enforcement actions taken without any sort of regulation or potentially a very clear law that enacts a moratorium or ban,” he said.

Council members Marti Emerald and Tony Young voted against the repeal, saying the public should make the decision about whether the previously adopted rules were appropriate.

Kenneth Cole, the owner of One on One, a collective just blocks away from City Hall in downtown, said he hopes the repeal of the ordinance does not result in sweeping store closures.

“I think there are going to be unintended consequences for both sides, but I hope this doesn’t mean raids and a return to the wild, wild west,” Cole said. “These patients deserve to be treated with respect.”

The repeal vote came on the same day backers of a new statewide ballot initiative to decriminalize marijuana began collecting signatures.

In 2010, a ballot measure to legalize the recreational use of pot failed with 53 percent of Californians and San Diegans voting against it.

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