County hears ample support for delivery-only pot

10/12/2017

After pulling a plan to allow medical marijuana dispensaries in unincorporated Marin, the county is now considering allowing delivery-only dispensaries, a proposal that appeared to have hearty community support at a public workshop on Tuesday. Those who spoke at the colorful hearing, many of whom were in the business, were largely in favor of loosening the regulatory process for issuing licenses and even expanding the number of licenses allowed. 

Though supervisors agreed to largely stick with the stipulations of a draft ordinance the county released last month, they were amenable to suggestions to alter the application process—including incorporating merit-based criteria earlier in the selection process and potentially leaving the site selection portion until the very end.  

“What we’ve heard from both community members and industry is that the key is to find the best operators. It’s about who they are,” Inge Lundegaard, Marin County’s cannabis program manager, said on Tuesday. 

After all 10 bids to open medical marijuana dispensaries in Marin were rejected this spring, last month the county announced this latest attempt—an ordinance that would permit delivery-only businesses in the unincorporated areas of the county. 

Under the rule, the county would aim to maintain at least two but no more than four licenses, which would be renewed annually. The ordinance would also require any dispensaries delivering to Marin from outside the county to be licensed.  

The draft has been available for public review and comment since Sept. 8. Tuesday’s workshop provided an opportunity for the county to hear public comment and for supervisors to provide direction to county staff on a few sticking points. Comments can be submitted until the board’s first reading of the ordinance, scheduled for Oct. 31. A final vote will likely be held on Nov. 14.

On Tuesday, county staff requested input from both supervisors and the public on a number of topics. Among them was the scope of the ordinance, including the number of licenses and the proposed distance dispensaries must be located from schools and other sensitive community areas. Planners also asked for guidance on the proposed steps of the application process. 

Of the speakers who raised concern about the impacts of introducing the dispensaries, most were primarily worried about potential impacts on youth. A San Geronimo resident wondered why the distance requirement from schools, playgrounds, tobacco stores and other cannabis retailers was decreased from 800 feet in the last ordinance to 600 feet in the new rule (which also expands the limitation to apply to day care and youth centers). 

He suggested the county consider a 1,500-foot buffer zone.

Yet supervisors affirmed in their concluding remarks that they were comfortable with 600 feet, a number that aligns with statewide standards, and even proposed nixing the requirement that dispensaries be located 600 feet from the other delivery-only cannabis retailers. (In the only instance in the county, Fairfax recently allowed a longstanding medical cannabis retailer to reopen under a prior use permit). 

Supervisor Dennis Rodoni commented that the county should consider removing tobacco stores from the buffer zone criteria, saying it was going to be difficult enough with all the current restrictions to find good spots. (He also made clear that he wasn’t condoning tobacco use.) 

The majority of speakers were advocates of medical marijuana, citing the critical needs of many residents who handle chronic pain and who have been seriously inconvenienced by the delay in the county’s process. 

“This is so much bigger than teenagers getting high,” an employee of Herba Buena, an online dispensary that grows marijuana in Mendocino County, said. “One of our clients is a quadriplegic and she needs this medicine… It’s not fair to make it more difficult for people like her, people who are trying to get off their opiates, to have access. This plant is sacred, it is medicine.”

Another man, a San Rafael resident, described a long and successful career in design work. “I could not have done this, I could not have done this without marijuana!” he exclaimed. He also said that “kids getting access to drugs” was not the issue at hand, and that “if you’re concerned about them, go look in your bathroom—how many pain pills are in there from your dentist? Did you count them? How many are in there now?”

In addition to other exclamations of support for medical marijuana—and marijuana in general—many of the commentators lobbied supervisors to amend the ordinance to make it easier for businesses to get licenses. Residents argued that the cap of just four did not reflect the demand in Marin and that the county might be forgoing some control over the market, since residents were likely to go to nearby counties with more options. 

“Marin County has been at the center of innovation, ethical business operations and family farms and organics, and it’s my opinion that marijuana poses an amazing opportunity for Marin to take a leadership role,” Marshall resident Michael Straus said. “Specifically related to delivery, restricting the businesses to four sounds arbitrary. It’s hard as it is to find retailers whose products I believe in, and it’s important to have more options.” 

Mr. Straus said the fact that the industry is changing very quickly “from small-scale mom-and-pop shops to massive, heavily funded, investment-capital” sources should also be considered in the county’s selection of retailers. 

Multiple business owners from current medical cannabis companies, including some that applied for licenses under the last ordinance, also expressed discontent about the cap, but were especially opposed to a lottery system. 

The current draft ordinance details four phases, including a brief pre-screening process that includes a basic background check, followed by a lottery to whittle the number of applicants down to four, and then a third phase in which the finalists would meet with Community Development Agency staff for a site analysis and plan review of the proposed location. Lastly, a final review would follow a 100-point scale based on the strength of the business plan, operating plan, security plan, neighborhood compatibility, public benefits plan and site and architectural plans. 

Despite concerns from the public, supervisors agreed that four was a good number and that they could amend the ordinance later on if needed. They were amenable to the possibility of amending the selection process, including nixing the lottery process, however. 

But county staff explained why a lottery system could cut down on the time it takes to issue permits. “At issue here is due process and efficiency,” Tom Lai, assistant director of the Community Development Agency, said on Tuesday. “We are sensitive to how long it has taken us to get here, and we want to create an efficient model. We recognize that the lottery may not get you the four best operators, even if you raised the bar for every applicant, though we would have to allocate more time for an appeal process if we chose applicants exclusively on discretionary criteria.” 

This week, Ms. Lundegaard explained that, based on the board’s feedback, county staff might shift the evaluation of the business, operating and public benefits plans to phase two so that the merit-based part of the evaluation occurs earlier. 

“Phase four would then be about what site the applicants would use. By leaving this part until the end, we might be able to avoid bidding wars and other impacts to the community of having all the applicants looking for a site from the get-go,” she said.  

For now, the cannabis subcommittee, comprised of Supervisors Judy Arnold and Damon Connolly, will help hammer out the details of how a lottery system might fit into this system in an amended draft that will be presented on Oct. 31.