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How Towns Sort Out Medical Marijuana Facilities

June 22, 2010

Medical Marijuana
Image by Laughing Squid via Flickr

California — Mention medicinal marijuana dispensaries and people tend to think of either the giant operations in Oakland or the hippie-tinged forests of the Emerald Triangle up north.

But sprayed throughout the state, in little towns where you wouldn’t expect such a thing, are hundreds of cannabis dispensaries that have a special challenge.

In burgs like Galt in the Sacramento Valley, where cowboys and Republicans rule the zeitgeist, and even in the tie-dyed Sonoma County enclave of Sebastopol, dispensary operators have to work extra hard to make the neighbors feel comfortable with their businesses – because in towns that small, everybody knows everyone and attitudes are worn on everyone’s sleeves.

Sometimes, as in Sebastopol, this works well. Sometimes, as in Galt, it’s not so smooth.

Both experiences offer valuable glimpses into what may be in store in November if the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act initiative on the statewide ballot passes and legalizes recreational marijuana use for the first time in the United States.

Confusing Territory

Those on the front lines of the small-town dispensary scene say anyone planning to sell pot should be prepared to bend over backward to meet local regulations and otherwise make nice with officials and neighbors. But sellers should also understand that in some places, there will be resistance no matter what.

It’s confusing territory, by definition. The 1996 state law authorizing medicinal marijuana doesn’t specify whether cities and counties can ban or even regulate local use, so it has been left to cities and counties to come up with their own playbooks.

To date, 141 cities and counties in California have banned marijuana dispensaries, and 41 cities and counties have passed laws regulating them, according to Americans for Safe Access, an advocate for medical marijuana providers. The other 354 cities and counties have either not addressed the situation or passed simple moratoriums capping the number of dispensaries at existing levels.

There’s little doubt where the sentiments lie in Sebastopol.

Peaceful Pot Peddlers

“It’s absolutely essential that local jurisdictions have control over the dispensaries, and that they make sure they are working well with their neighborhoods,” said Sebastopol City Councilman Larry Robinson.

Exhibit A, he said: the Peace in Medicine Healing Center, the only dispensary in his town of 7,700 people. The collective opened in 2007 in a former Ford car dealership building. Before the first bud hit the counter, its managers made sure to knock on the doors of every neighbor in sight.

Executive Director Robert Jacob met with the police chief and other community leaders to make sure the center would be following city laws requiring that dispensaries provide their own security and verify that patients are eligible for medical marijuana.

Today, most people wouldn’t know from the snappy, earth-toned exterior of Peace in Medicine that 3,800 medicinal cannabis users come in for everything from marijuana to pain-controlling acupuncture treatments and massages. From the road, it looks more like a high-end insurance office – with a smiling security guard unobtrusively posted at the door, and others posted less visibly around the complex.


Paying taxes

“They’ve been good citizens in our community, very scrupulous about the guidelines we established,” Robinson said. “They’re respectful of their neighbors and keep a low profile.

“Frankly, I’m happy to have them in the community, not the least for their tax revenue,” the councilman said. The sales taxes paid to Sebastopol – $85,000 a year, the dispensary says – is more than the old car dealership used to pay.

“We want to give a positive healing image,” Jacob said. “It’s so sad when we have such a large segment of society living in shame, feeling they have to hide their use. Being good neighbors and setting a good example is how we counteract that negativity.”

It hasn’t gone as well elsewhere in Sonoma County, where a judge in December tossed out the county’s dispensary permit law for unincorporated areas. The number of pot clubs since then has grown from four to nearly two dozen, and robberies and complaints have skyrocketed with them, authorities say.

“They’re just popping up all over,” said Dave McCullick, vice president of the 4,000-member Sonoma Patient Group dispensary in Santa Rosa, which had to adhere to city regulations when it opened two years ago. “And with no guidelines now in the unincorporated areas, you can have people selling methamphetamine on the side, or opening near a school with no security. It’s bad for all of us.”

Unwanted, but trying

About 80 miles east, in 24,000-population Galt, is an example of how nasty things can get under the haziness of state law.

There, the Galt Health & Wellness Center opened last month in a strip mall on an industrial stretch of the Sacramento County town – and instantly got in a fight with the city.

The City Council banned dispensaries in 2009, but the Galt center’s managers said the ordinance was invalid under the state medicinal marijuana law. So they sued as soon as Galt officials told them to shut down. As the legalities have been grinding through Sacramento County Superior Court, the dispensary has picked up more than 200 patients.

At least two similar suits are pending in a state appeals court, where they were sent after local judges upheld pot-club bans in Anaheim and Lake Forest, both in Orange County.

“We are the only dispensary between Sacramento and Turlock,” said the Galt dispensary’s office manager, Katrina Mora, “so there is a great need for our services. Because this is a small town, we’re really interested in helping the community, paying taxes, doing community outreach. We just have to get that conversation going.”

Neighbors don’t mind

Neighbors of the dispensary, including a smog-check shop and a cigarette store, said they have no complaints about the dispensary. “I’ve seen a few old people go in and out over there, but heard nothing from the place,” said Smog Tech 3 technician Sonny Ayala. “It’s not like they’re a bunch of stoners.”

That’s not good enough for the City Council, though.

“It’s disturbing that they just blatantly thumbed their nose at us and opened up like that,” Mayor Barbara Payne said. “Every citizen I have talked to, including the historical society that I am a member of, is totally against this sort of business opening in Galt.

“The fact that one of the first things they did was put up bulletproof glass in their office indicates they think there might be a problem, too,” Payne said.

City, county control

November’s ballot measure to legalize recreational weed use would let cities and counties control the taxation and sale of marijuana, but it would also legalize the use of up to an ounce per person. That has Payne concerned.

“If this is how a dispensary behaves now, what can we expect in November if the initiative passes?” she said. “How are you going to enforce anything?”

The answer from Sebastopol’s Jacob and others who have successfully integrated into their communities is to take things slowly and to work closely with the cities and counties before launching operations.

“If that measure passes, adult use of marijuana will go up 10 times or more,” Jacob said. “The best thing to do is for cities and counties to get involved in regulation now, so it doesn’t take anyone by surprise.”

The Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010

What it would do: Legalize possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana for personal recreational use by anybody 21 or older, and allow each person to grow weed in a 5-by-5-foot space. It would permit local governments to regulate and tax commercial sale and production.

Who’s for it? The medicinal marijuana industry, pot growers who see the potential for a wider market, some law enforcement officials and doctors, and a few politicians, including Oakland mayoral candidate Don Perata.

Who’s against it? Major law enforcement organizations, including the California Peace Officers Association, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the candidates to replace him, and some pot growers who believe it would drive down pot prices.

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