Bills, Current Events, Legal

San Jose to weigh medical pot law

Posted: 01/27/2010 06:32:53 PM PST

Updated: 01/27/2010 07:47:12 PM PST
San Jose officials groped for direction in the legal haze surrounding medical marijuana dispensaries Wednesday as dozens of advocates rallied at City Hall to urge an ordinance permitting them to provide the drug to patients — while others urged a moratorium.Illustrating the confusion, Mayor Chuck Reed pondered just how little the city could do under current city and state laws to stop qualified patients from growing pot in their backyards without permission, just as they could grow a tomato plant.

“If my wife got sick and I was the caregiver, I could go out in my backyard, I could plant it and grow it and be in compliance with state law without any kind of permit or zoning from the city,” Reed said as the city attorney nodded in agreement, suggesting patients don’t need storefront dispensaries.

The colorful debate — propelled by a surge in medical marijuana shops — will now move to the full City Council on March 30, after the city’s Rules and Open Government Committee on Wednesday decided it’s time for the city to consider whether to pursue an ordinance that permits and taxes medical pot dispensaries, as Councilman Pierluigi Oliverio suggested in October.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Councilman and committee member Pete Constant, a retired city police officer, echoed Oliverio’s concerns about the “cost of inaction” as the number of confirmed dispensaries in San Jose have multiplied from none a year ago to perhaps 30 despite warnings from code enforcement that they are currently illegal.Constant noted the situation in Los Angeles where city officials this week approved limits that will force most of the hundreds of medical pot stores that opened around the city in recent years to close. He worried about city code enforcers diverting time from blight eradication to shutting dispensaries.

“I don’t know which way we’re going to go,” Constant said. “We just have to go. At least people would know what they can and can’t do.”

The legality of medicinal marijuana dispensaries remains open to debate. Though voters in 1996 made California the first state to legalize medical marijuana use, the drug remains illegal under federal law. The U.S. attorney general last year indicated that federal agents won’t bust those who follow state marijuana laws, a move that has sown a “green rush” of dispensaries in California.

But both the voter initiative and state legislation leave unclear how marijuana could legally be provided to the sick. Many law enforcement and government officials argue dispensaries are nothing more than large moneymaking drugstores that will sell pot to just about anyone.

Dispensary operators say they are following state attorney general guidelines to operate as nonprofits providing medicine to certified patients.

Dozens of cities, including Gilroy, Los Gatos and Santa Clara, have enacted bans and moratoriums on pot dispensaries. A state appellate court is expected to rule later this year on a challenge to Anaheim’s effort to outlaw dispensaries.

Some in San Jose want the city to adopt a moratorium too, including the Alameda Business Association. Reed maintained such a move isn’t necessary because city law already outlaws them. Medical marijuana advocates, some wearing plastic pot-leaf necklaces and others business suits, said dispensaries fill a need because many patients lack the expertise and ability to grow marijuana themselves. Lauren Vasquez, representing a Silicon Valley chapter of Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group, said dispensaries could produce $1 million in tax money for the city. City Manager Debra Figone cautioned that without voter approval for a new tax, the revenues would largely be limited to recovering permitting costs.

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