Local pot dispensaries won’t find relief on Nov. ballot
on June 29, 2010
Voters across California are gearing up to decide whether to legalize the recreational use of marijuana this fall, but in Richmond, it appears that because of murky rules surrounding local marijuana dispensaries, it could remain illegal to sell pot even after state law decrees the drug OK to smoke.
That’s because city officials in Richmond have yet to decide on a way to regulate the number, or location of marijuana dispensaries in town. Currently, the city prosecutor’s office is cracking down on pot dispensaries for violating city land-use laws by seeking civil injunctions against the clubs. Medical marijuana dispensaries are currently legal under state law, but are regulated on a city-by-city basis.
As it stands, Richmond does not have an ordinance that explicity prohibits dispensaries from selling pot within city limits, but none of Richmond’s commercial areas are zoned to allow for a marijuana dispensary, meaning collectives that sell the drug for medical patients cannot obtain a proper business license from the city. City prosecutors say many of the dispensaries that are currently in business obtained licenses fraudulently, by claiming to be nurseries or other types of businesses. Each of those eight dispensaries is now facing a civil injunction for violating zoning ordinances.
If pot clubs continue selling cannabis despite an injunction, they would be subject to fines ranging from $1,000 to $5,000 per day, according to city prosecutor Trisha Aljoe.
“It has nothing to do with a de facto ban [on marijuana],” Aljoe said. “If you don’t have a business license, or if you got it through fraud, that’s a fraudulent application. The bottom line is that everybody has to follow local zoning laws and business license laws.”
Richmond’s City Council decided in April to wait until after November’s vote to decide on how to regulate the clubs — or whether to allow for them at all. But according to Aljoe, even if pot is legalized statewide — and if the council ultimately agrees to update its zoning laws to allow for pot dispensaries — it could take months or years for such a move to get approval from the many layers of city government that would have to sign off on the change. As a result, it appears local pot clubs are likely to remain in legal limbo for quite a while.
“Zoning changes are never easy,” she said. “They can take years to do. Even if [the city council says] they’re going to allow them, that’s not anything that’s going to happen overnight. There’s got to be public hearings, study sessions, then they have to go through the public safety committee, the finance committee, the planning commission … So I don’t anticipate it’s going to be an overnight process.”
That’s bad news for local dispensary operators like John Clay, who runs the Pacific Alternative Health Center in Point Richmond. His business has been open since last November, but now has a July date with the County Superior Court to discuss a preliminary injunction against the club. Clay said he opened his shop in Richmond because the city didn’t have any explicit laws against starting a dispensary, but when he approached the city’s planning commission to apply for a business license, was denied. He opened his business anyway.
“The city has a right and a responsibility to regulate [cannabis],” Clay said. “But it’s rotten to blame us for the fact that the city dropped the ball in terms of [formalizing a regulatory process]. If I wanted to fight City Hall, I could have gone to Pinole — that was my first choice, but they had an ordinance against [dispensaries]. So a lot of us concluded that if it’s not against the law here, then it’s not against the law.”
The city began making its complaints against the pot clubs earlier this year, Aljoe said, as a result of a sudden influx of dispensaries in town. “They were springing up like weeds,” she said, before noting the irony.
According to Aljoe, the city is in varying stages of seeking injunctions against each dispensary. She said she knew of two dispensaries that have already been shut down by their own landlords as a result of the city’s complaint.
State voters in 1996 approved the Compassionate Use Act, which allowed patients with a doctor’s prescription to purchase and use medical marijuana, even though the drug is still classified as a federally controlled substance.
Last July, Oakland residents voted to impose a 1.8 percent sales tax on marijuana dispensaries, although the city limits the number of permits it approves to four.
Prop. 19, also known as the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act, would make it legal for adults over 21 to possess and grow marijuana for personal use, and would allow local governments to regulate and tax its sale.
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