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Council passes ‘liberal’ medical pot ordinance

on July 21, 2010

By the slimmest of margins, Richmond’s City Council voted Tuesday night to pass a significantly more liberal version of an ordinance regulating medical marijuana dispensaries than originally planned.

The ordinance, which was constantly revised and amended throughout a tense, boisterous and at times comical council session, seeks to regulate how and where medical marijuana can be sold in the city. Despite the fact that Richmond is currently home to eight different pot dispensaries, the city has never formally regulated the suddenly booming business. City prosecutors have been filing cease-and-desist orders over the past several months to many Richmond dispensaries, and seeking civil injunctions against others for operating without a proper vendor’s permit.

The new ordinance, which still needs to make it through a second reading next week, will not limit the number of pot clubs allowed within the city limits — an important and controversial change from the draft ordinance’s original proposal of a three-dispensary limit. The amended ordinance also did away with plans to require dispensaries to be at least 1,000 feet away from each other, and for the police department to oversee the permitting process, instead handing that duty to the city’s administrator.

“I like the idea of having more, smaller dispensaries,” Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said. McLaughlin was joined by councilmembers Nat Bates, Jim Rogers and Jeff Ritterman in supporting the ordinance. Councilmembers Tom Butt, Ludmyrna Lopez and Maria Viramontes opposed.

While the move seemed to please many in the standing-room-only crowd — many of whom spoke on behalf of the city’s dispensaries — it clearly didn’t sit well with everyone on the council.

“What we’re seeing is a move to make Richmond the regional center of [medical marijuana distribution],” Butt said. “At the end of the day, though, it’s just about money and greed. These dispensary owners are being disingenuous, they’re confused, and most of them are carpet-baggers who come to Richmond because they thought they could get their nose under the tent and run their business here.”

Much of the council’s draft ordinance was modeled on a similar pot ordinance passed by the city of Long Beach earlier this year. The ordinance sets limits on where dispensaries can operate: not within a 1,500-foot radius of a high school, or a 500-foot radius of a school housing younger children, a community center or a library. The pot clubs must also be located within an area currently zoned for commercial use.

John Clay, the manager of Point Richmond-based dispensary Pacific Alternative Health Care, addresses City Council Tuesday night. Photo by Ian A. Stewart.

The motion to pass Tuesday’s ordinance beat out an opposing motion favored by councilmembers Lopez and Viramontes, which would have kept intact the limit of three dispensaries, and required the police force to govern the permitting process.

Businesses hoping to obtain one of the Medical Marijuana Collective Permits will have to submit a lengthy application to the city’s administrator, complete with proof of their non-profit status, criminal histories of their managers, and a county health department sign-off if they plan to make pot-laced foods on site.

Thirty days after the ordinance is approved — a second reading should appear before the council next week — businesses can submit their cannabis applications to the city, which will announce public hearings to all property owners within a 750-foot radius of the proposed dispensaries to determine whether or not to grant the permit.

Most members of the audience Tuesday appeared to be supportive of the new guidelines, although John Clay, the manager of Pacific Alternative Health Care, a Point Richmond-based dispensary, remained more tepid in his support.

“I think it’s good,” Clay said of the ordinance. “They could have done a lot worse, certainly. I think it’s decent.”

The ordinance does not include any mention of a special tax on medical cannabis. Oakland reportedly expects to raise around $1.5 million in pot taxes this year via a 1.8 percent sales tax passed last summer, and the Berkeley City Council just placed a measure on the November ballot calling for a 2.5 percent sales tax on medical pot, and a 10 percent tax on recreational pot, should it be legalized by state voters come November.

Meanwhile, many of Richmond’s pot dispensaries are currently facing civil injunctions for operating without a permit. The new ordinance does not appear to have any effect on that litigation, a fact several collective members bemoaned Tuesday. The council had previously voted 4-3 during closed session to continue prosecuting out-of-compliance dispensaries, according to Ritterman.

Richmond’s City Council had originally planned to wait until after November, when the state’s voters will decide whether to legalize recreational marijuana, to consider a marijuana ordinance. Ultimately, though, the council moved forward with the plan as a result of public outcry from medical pot users and providers. The city, which has seen the number of pot collectives grow from around three to as high as 10 over the past year, is relatively late to adopt a pot ordinance, compared to many other Bay Area cities. Oakland first introduced guidelines to selling pot in 1998, with stricter rules passed in 2004. Berkeley first passed a pot ordinance in 1997 and San Francisco has had rules on the books to govern marijuana sales since 2005.

State Proposition 215, passed by voters in 1996, allows residents to legally buy and use marijuana for medical purposes.

Richmond’s lack of formal rules for selling medical marijuana likely caused the sudden rise in pot businesses, according to many dispensary owners and directors. Other businesses driven out of Oakland, San Francisco and other cities after ordinances were passed there may have set up shop in Richmond as well.

Arthur Mijares, a member of the Contra Costa Anti-Marijuana Initiative Task Force, a citizen-run group that holds monthly meetings in Concord, acknowledged that medical marijuana dispensaries have a legal right to sell pot to their members, but questioned the ways that many patients go about obtaining a referral.

“It’s the law now, but that law is being abused,” said Mijares, who was not at Tuesday’s council meeting. “It’s just an open can of worms. Anyone, and I mean anyone, can get a [medical marijuana] card. You just apply and pay your $75 and say, ‘I’ve got headaches or back pain.’ …  The amount of card-carrying cannabis [patients] is way inflated.”

Tuesday’s marijuana debate, which lasted over three hours and seemed to test the patience of every member of the council, was not without its fair share of pothead humor – seemingly a staple of any cannabis-related discourse. But the best line of the night went to Councilman Bates, who, while heaping praise on one of the city’s dispensaries, pointed out, “It’s definitely a green business.”

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