Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Council introduces permanent pot shop rules


A unanimous vote of the Santa Barbara City Council approved introduction of a permanent ordinance regulating medical marijuana dispensaries in the city Tuesday afternoon, essentially putting the new regulations into effect in approximately one month.
New restrictions on local pot shops include a permit process and limitations on locations and operating procedures. The legislation returns to the council at its next meeting for official adoption.

City leaders said the ordinance strikes a critical balance between controlling the sale of medical marijuana and allowing patients safe access to their medicine. And while they admitted minor changes to the legislation might be necessary down the road, they said it addresses many issues raised by community members, including those contained in a recent Santa Barbara County Civil Grand Jury report.
“The ordinance that we drafted meets most of their concerns,” Councilmember Dale Francisco said, stressing the importance of getting legislation in place before the interim moratorium prohibiting new dispensaries expires in April.
“We still have to keep an eye on it,” he added.
Locational requirements contained in the ordinance restrict pot shops to commercial zones along upper State Street, Milpas Street, Cliff Drive, and portions of downtown Santa Barbara. Areas within 500 feet of schools, parks or other dispensaries, as well as along State Street between Cabrillo Boulevard and Arrellaga Street, are off limits.
Approximately 17 operational restrictions also apply, city senior planner Danny Kato said, including guidelines on access and security, consumption, site management, background checks and staff training.
“The one that had the most discussion [in previous hearings] was consumption onsite,” Kato said.
Largely outlawing the use of medical marijuana at dispensaries — excepting oral consumption by employees who are also patients — was the unequivocal message during discussions by the Planning Commission and Ordinance Committee, he said.
Councilmember Grant House said that particular piece of the ordinance will likely address concerns about noise, odor and criminal activity brought up by the public in mid-2007 when the city first began considering regulations on dispensaries.
“The biggest concern we saw was about consumption onsite and we’ve taken that away,” he said.
In addition to meeting location and operation restrictions, dispensary owners will also have to apply for a permit, which remains valid as long as the owner and location do not change.
Of the seven dispensaries currently in operation that Kato identified, only three are currently “legal” under the city’s interim moratorium. Only one of those meets the requirements of the permanent ordinance.
The other two will have a three-year period in which to comply with locational restrictions, but will be held to the other terms of the ordinance as soon as it goes into effect.
Those that are “illegal” under the interim ordinance, likely opening after the moratorium went into effect in October 2007, will have to close shop and apply for a permit, city attorney Steve Wiley said. He added that keeping track of how many dispensaries are currently in operation is a tricky task.
“It changes depending on information we receive from people in the field,” he said. “…It’s a changing, moving target.”
One dispensary identified by the city, Sacred Mountain, operating at 27 Parker Way, is legal under the interim moratorium but falls within 500 feet of a local park. As a result, it will have to relocate within three years unless an agreement is reached with the city to allow it to remain at its current location.
“We’re thinking that since we’re on this side of the freeway and the park is on the other side of the freeway, we’re hoping we can negotiate some kind of stability with our business,” said Dr. Tharon Weighill, owner of Sacred Mountain. “…If not, we’re good to do what we have to do.”
As far as the other limitations of the ordinance, Dr. Weighill said he doesn’t believe they will have much of an impact on his business.
“I didn’t think anything the city asked of us was too unreasonable,” he said. “There’s not much in there that we have to address that we hadn’t already addressed before the ordinance came down.”
Frank Sanchez, manager of the Healing Center dispensary at 1437 San Andres St., agreed that many of the provisions are reasonable, but criticized the city for effectively preventing medicinal pot shops from operating on the city’s Westside.
During his report, Kato listed the Healing Center as one of the “illegal” operations, meaning it will have to close shop, relocate and apply for a permit.
“If that’s the only option we have, we will relocate,” Sanchez said. “But I don’t want to move from where I’m at, because my patients are happy that they are within walking distance. … I don’t see how they can determine not allowing one in this area.”
He said the dispensary has already made many operational changes to fit with the new legislation and hopes the city will be amenable to reaching an agreement that will allow the Healing Center to remain open.
Attempts to contact several other dispensary operators in Santa Barbara for comment on the new ordinance were not successful.
Jennifer Nelson, the local representative of Americans for Safe Access, an advocacy group that promotes legal access to marijuana for therapeutic and research purposes, said she is generally pleased with the new legislation.
“There’s definitely some tweaking they need to do,” she said. “Overall, it’s a lot better than it was in the past.”
Public speakers offered a few suggestions for changes, such as a provision for confidentially tracking how much marijuana each patient purchases. A recent report by the County Grand Jury also suggested a central database to prevent patients from going from one dispensary to another and collecting large amounts of marijuana for resale, as well as audits of inventory and sales.
In the next few weeks, the council’s Finance Committee will discuss permit fees and possible annual renewal fees that would go into effect as part of the new ordinance.

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