Marin 
debates 
marijuana dispensaries

06/11/2015

A draft ordinance to license up to three medical marijuana dispensaries in unincorporated Marin is meeting worries over the potential proximity to youth-related services and support from patients and dispensary staffers in Marin and the Bay Area.

At a two-and-a-half hour workshop the county convened on Tuesday afternoon, patients described the relief medical marijuana can provide, while other residents aired concerns over the proposed parameters for dispensary locations, particularly as they pertain to possible locations near bike lanes used by schoolchildren or commercial zones bordering neighborhoods. 

Commenters brought up a host of other concerns, such as whether the ordinance should regulate or allow delivery services, and if the ordinance should require testing to ensure a safe product.

The supervisors indicated at the close of the meeting that they would move forward to provide medical access. “The goal of the ordinance is to allow an above-ground, legal way for patients to access medical cannabis in a safe, regulated environment,” said Supervisor Damon Connolly, who, along with Supervisor Judy Arnold, sat on a subcommittee to draft the dispensary rules.

The workshop, which filled virtually every seat in the supervisors’ chamber and drew dozens of public comments, mostly proceeded smoothly—save for the very first commenter, who roundly denounced medical marijuana and received harsh boos from the audience. (“You’re a fool and you’re a liar,” someone in the crowd called out.)

If enacted as currently written, the ordinance would allow the county to license up to three medical marijuana dispensaries in the unincorporated areas of the county. Only one would be approved in each of three geographic zones: the northern, eastern and western portions of Marin.

The stipulations in the draft ordinance—which requires storefronts to be located in highly visible, commercially zoned areas at least 600 feet from schools and youth facilities—mean that 219 parcels are, theoretically, potential sites for dispensaries, said Tom Lai, the assistant director of the Community Development Agency. Mr. Lai told the Light that 133 of those parcels are in West Marin—23 in the San Geronimo Valley and the rest in coastal villages. 

With a 1,000-foot buffer, an expansion from the draft’s buffer that seems likely given supervisor comments on Tuesday, the total number drops to 160. (Mr. Lai did not have West Marin data for that buffer, but he suspected the numbers would not change much.)

Some at the workshop called the restrictions inadequate. Residents from Strawberry said commercial zones were right next to residential areas and that dispensaries did not fit in with the area’s “rural character.” They worried about the potential for luring criminals into their midst, with one woman saying she had almost been carjacked near a former dispensary close to her home. Others believed that “youth-oriented facilities” should include bike lanes that students routinely use to travel to and from school.

Some residents argued that the county should focus on regulating delivery services instead, which they pointed out were more “discreet” and less disruptive to neighborhoods. (Mr. Lai said at the beginning of the meeting that the county does not currently monitor collectively owned, nonprofit delivery services that operate from, and deliver to, private residences.)

Responding to those fears, Supervisor Arnold said storefronts have not been associated with increased crime. 

Lynette Shaw, the former operator of the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana in Fairfax, a dispensary shut down by the federal government in 2011, said her operation brought no influx of crime. (Her lawyer, Greg Anton, also spoke; near his home in Sonoma, he said, there’s a store that sells guns, ammunition, alcohol and tobacco and allows kids inside. “It’s called Wal-Mart,” he said.) 

Advocates for storefronts—one of whom called the license limit “ridiculous”— pointed out that those who have a doctor’s permission to use marijuana for medical purposes should have the option of patronizing a physical store, as some might feel uncomfortable asking a stranger to deliver to their doorstep. 

Some county officials expressed concerns about making the process so over-regulated and onerous that it would be virtually impossible to comply. Supervisor Kinsey, for instance, pointed out that rules in the ordinance get down into specific hours of operation. Many of the draft rules, he said, were “too specific, too tight.” Supervisor Connolly was also skeptical about calls for mandatory testing of marijuana, saying the county probably did not have the resources to enforce it. 

Providing a face to the issue at hand, patients and caregivers lined up to tell their own stories of how pot had eased the physical agony of cancer and other painful ailments. A man from Corte Madera, who said his wife was dying of ovarian cancer, said that using the plant was the only way she could sleep or eat, but that going to and from San Francisco takes hours. The debate over the ordinance, he said, “seems to be all about everyone except the medical marijuana patient.”

Jeff Hickey, an Inverness resident, said he used cannabidiol, or C.B.D., a form of medical marijuana, after being diagnosed with cancer last year. He choked up as he described the relief it has also brought to his wife, Karen, who was recently diagnosed with fibromyalgia. “The one thing about medical marijuana that has not been mentioned…is hope. It has returned hope to our lives,” he said, adding, “I hope you figure out a way to make it happen in rural West Marin.”

Under the terms of the draft ordinance, potential operators would apply for one of the three licenses. Agency staff would review the applications and make recommendations to the County Administrator, who would have the final say on granting the licenses. Because it is a license, not a use permit, no public hearings on the applications or public noticing of neighbors would be required—although it appears that at least the latter will be reconsidered. (The supervisors’ subcommittee pursued licensing because it affords the county more discretion to choose holders. Use permits, on the other hand, provide less control over who operates the business, since permits are tied to land use.)

Questions about the application process arose during the workshop. Requiring applicants to have a signed lease seemed unreasonable, since most applicants will not nab a license. One woman worried that landlords—at least, those open to hosting a medical marijuana dispensary—could take advantage of the situation to start a bidding war over some sites, potentially sidelining those who would run the most reputable dispensaries. She suggested a two-tiered process in which the county could first filter applications to find the most qualified operators, then hold a second round of applications for those who secured the promise of a lease. 

The timing of the ordinance was also discussed, given that a state ballot initiative to legalize marijuana for recreational use may come before voters in 2016. Some felt looming legalization made the ordinance moot. Yet establishing some rules now could also help the county prepare for wider legalization, which some called “recreational readiness.”

“I’ll need to look at that term,” said Mr. Lai.