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Pot clubs create zoning problems

By John Geluardi Daily Planet staff
Thursday May 10, 2001

The City Council approved a recommendation Tuesday asking the city manager to develop procedures for issuing permits and licenses to Medical Marijuana cooperatives.  

The council approved the recommendation by a vote of 8-0-1 with Councilmember Betty Olds abstaining.  

The recommendation, put on the agenda by Councilmembers Margaret Breland, Linda Maio and Kriss Worthington, also asked the city attorney to draw up language for an urgency moratorium on any new medical marijuana dispensaries until specific zoning regulations can be approved. 

A moratorium would have to be approved by seven of the nine councilmembers if there is no public hearing prior to the vote. If a moratorium is adopted, it would be in effect for only 45 days at which point it could not be extended without a public hearing. 

The council adopted a Medical Marijuana Ordinance in March, which allows doctor-approved patients to possess up to 10 marijuana plants and up to 2.5 pounds of dried marijuana. The ordinance also allows  

cooperatives to grow up to 50 plants and have up to 12 pounds of dried marijuana at any one time.  

However, shortly after the ordinance was approved, it became clear that the city’s zoning ordinance does not provide guidelines for regulating medical marijuana cooperatives and outlets.  

“We kind of backed into this trying to do the right thing,” said City Manager Weldon Rucker. “If we’re not careful we’re going to legitimize something we can’t legitimize and soon it could be ‘anything goes.’” 

While California Proposition 215 allows marijuana use for medical reasons it provides no guidelines for the cultivation, distribution and transportation of the drug. Such logistics are left up to counties and municipalities to work out.  

This situation creates legal quandaries for local law makers because federal law still prohibits the use of marijuana under any circumstance. The contradiction has left law makers struggling to find ways to help patients who need medical marijuana while trying to dodge state and federal legal snags. 

Currently the Supreme Court is considering a law suit involving Oakland’s Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative that tests the scope of Proposition 215. The cooperative was sued, along with six others, by the U.S. Justice Department shortly after Proposition 215 was passed in 1996.  

The Supreme Court is considering arguments and is expected to make a decision on the case by August. 

One question that the city manager will try to answer is, which city department will oversee the inspection and permitting of the cooperatives. Councilmember Linda Maio said she would like the Health and Human Services Department to supervise the cooperatives.  

But Health and Human Services Department Director Fred Medrano said the responsibility would mean a significant work increase for the already taxed health department, and more importantly, his staff might be reluctant to take on the job.  

“Essentially it would be asking a city department to carry out an illegal activity,” he said. “There would be a great deal of concern on staff’s part, especially physicians who are subject to medical license review.” 

Another thorny issue for the city manager to work through is what parts of town are appropriate for the collectives. According to the Planning and Development Department, there are as many as five cooperatives the city knows about.  

A cooperative that recently opened on San Pablo Avenue near Addison Street has raised neighbors’ concerns. They say they were not informed beforehand that the club would locate there and they question the professionalism the club’s management. 

Laurie Polster, who lives near the cooperative, said the collective brings an element of uncertainty to the neighborhood. She said after the business opened up, she went to another cooperative in Berkeley and was impressed with the clinic-like atmosphere of the place.  

She said the clinic that opened in her neighborhood is in a dilapidated building and the only sign outside the cooperative reads “knock hard.” 

Polster said she supports medical marijuana but is worried about the cooperative being the target of robberies. “These places have lots of cash and drugs around,” she said. 

The person who started the club at San Pablo and Addison, who asked to be identified only as Michael, countered that the club had been operating only for two weeks. He said another person, one with experience, was taking over its management. “Poor people need the medicine,” he said, arguing for its location in the low-income area. 

Councilmember Kriss Worthington said one of the goals of the council recommendation was to put both patients and neighbors at ease about the cooperatives. 

“We care about the concerns of the patients and neighbors alike.” he said. “The cooperatives want to be sure the police are not going to raid them and the neighbors want to be sure the cooperatives will be run in a reasonable, safe way.” 

The City Council could consider the urgency moratorium as early as next week.