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Indybay FeatureRelated Categories: Central Valley | Drug War | Government & Elections | Health, Housing, and Public Services | Police State and Prisons
Valley cities build legal barriers against pot shops
It's unclear whether bans against marijuana dispensaries are legal.
Fresno isn’t the only central San Joaquin Valley community working to weed out medical-marijuana dispensaries. In recent months, counties and smaller cities across the Valley have been scrambling to pass laws banning the businesses.
At least six cities and two counties in the region have approved temporary or permanent bans on dispensaries — apparently in response to a new Obama administration policy that has prompted several such clubs to open up in the Valley.
Fresno’s effort to shutter dispensaries may have led many of them to look for more receptive communities, but with little luck. Shortly after Fresno officials went to court in September to close nine dispensaries, many smaller cities in the surrounding area began fielding calls — some of them anonymous — from people who wanted to know whether they could open similar businesses.
“Apparently they were asking every city,” said Parlier City Manager Lou Martinez. “We said, ‘This is not a good thing.’ ”
It’s unclear, however, if the bans are legal. Some proponents of medical marijuana say they plan to challenge the new ordinances in court. Medical marijuana is legal in California under Proposition 215, which was approved by voters in 1996. But many distributors worried they would still be arrested for selling the drug because it is illegal under federal law. That fear abated, however, after the Obama administration announced in March that the Justice Department would no longer prosecute medical marijuana distributors who followed state laws.
As a result, over the last year at least nine dispensaries opened in Fresno and at least three opened in Madera County.
Most dispensaries serve hundreds or thousands of patients each. By law, they must be nonprofits. Generally they work like this: The owner buys marijuana from members of the dispensary — or club, as they prefer to be called — and sells the cannabis to other members who don’t grow marijuana. The drug comes in various forms and is less expensive than if bought on the street. Dispensary owners say members must have prescriptions from their doctors before they can buy medical marijuana.
Local officials say they are opposed to dispensaries for several reasons, including fears that they would increase crime, jeopardize federal funding, and — as Reedley City Manager Rocky Rogers put it — “sedate the public into believing that marijuana is something that is a good thing.”
A few cities already had ordinances banning or regulating dispensaries. But those that did not — realizing that it would be much more difficult and contentious if they tried to pass an ordinance after a dispensary opened up in town — moved quickly to approve bans.
Parlier, Firebaugh, Dinuba, and Reedley passed ordinances permanently banning future and existing dispensaries. Orange Cove is considering a similar measure. Selma, Visalia, Kingsburg and Madera County passed temporary bans on dispensaries — most of them for a year. Tulare County approved an ordinance that bans dispensaries until the courts and legislature more clearly define the law.
Often, no one from the public showed up to comment on the ordinances before they were approved and there was little discussion among council members.
Some cities approved bans even though no one had asked about opening a dispensary.
“It was the belief that once [the dispensaries] got run out of Fresno, they would start running to the smaller, rural cities,” said Elsa Lopez, Firebaugh’s police chief. “It was a proactive step.”
Bill McPike, an attorney and medical marijuana patient who lives near Shaver Lake, said that several dispensaries have moved out of the city of Fresno and opened up in county islands within the Fresno city limits. Fresno County does not have a ban on dispensaries.
Alan Weaver, county planning and public works director, confirmed that at least one dispensary is open in a county island at Clovis and Ashlan avenues.
Meanwhile, most of the dispensaries that had opened in Madera County in the last year have either closed or moved to the Bay Area, McPike said. In a few cities, some medical marijuana users objected to the ordinances.
At a Reedley City Council meeting in early December, for example, one resident told the council members that they were basing their decision on bad information, according to the meeting’s minutes. The resident said dispensaries weren’t any likelier to attract crime than banks or liquor stores.
But the police chief, Steve Wright, told the council that marijuana is highly addictive and could encourage criminal behavior. The council approved the ban unanimously.
Tammy Murray, who opened a dispensary near Visalia in 2007 that served about 1,500 patients, said she was forced to close her shop a month after Tulare County passed its ordinance in November.
Murray says she’s raising money to hire an attorney to challenge the county’s ordinance. She’s selling T-shirts with pro-medical marijuana messages such as: “We’re not smoking the devil’s lettuce.”
Officials in some of the cities said they hope that in the coming months the state Supreme Court will clearly define how much legal authority local governments have to ban dispensaries. There is some concern that — as with adult businesses — cities may only be allowed to regulate rather than ban medical marijuana shops.
“We want to have something that gives us clear guidance before we do anything,” said Kingsburg City Manager Don Pauley. “We’re not convinced that we can legally ban dispensaries [permanently].”
Many medical marijuana users are upset with the bans. They say that forcing medical marijuana patients — such as those with severe arthritis or multiple sclerosis — to travel to the Bay Area or elsewhere to buy cannabis is cruel and inconsiderate.
Rather than ban dispensaries, cities and counties should focus on regulating them, said Stephen Gutwillig, the California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance Network.
“It seems that these ordinances that ban dispensaries outright reflect an outdated wholesale opposition to medical marijuana laws that are obviously here to stay,” he said.