Opposition flares over proposed valley dispensary

David Briggs
MARIJUANA: Residents of the valley spoke out against a proposed medical marijuana dispensary in Forest Knolls during a San Geronimo Valley Planning Group meeting last week. Attendees asked the planning group to formally oppose the storefront.  

Opposition to a proposed medical marijuana dispensary is ramping up in the San Geronimo Valley, with dozens of residents lobbying the local planning group and the school board to write critical letters to the county. As of this week, the Community Development Agency had received about 200 letters opposing the single active proposal for the valley, in Forest Knolls.

School trustees approved a letter of protest, though one trustee, Denise Santa Cruz Bohman, abstained, saying she needed to fight the proposal not as a trustee but as the manager of the affordable trailer park behind the proposed site at 6700 Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. 

And though the San Geronimo Valley Planning Group has not yet taken a formal position, a meeting on Nov. 14 to discuss the proposal drew about 30 or 40 people—many parents of young children—who detailed their objections, occasionally through tears. No one spoke in support of it. 

The prospect of the dispensary has sparked numerous fears, particularly over children passing by, customers overwhelming the valley’s rural character, the area’s minimal law enforcement presence and the proximity to homes. 

Following a 2015 county ordinance allowing storefront medical marijuana dispensaries in unincorporated Marin, the county received 12 applications. The ordinance, which requires that dispensaries be 800 feet from schools and youth-oriented facilities, allows for two licenses in West Marin and two in eastern Marin.

The single application active in the valley, submitted by a group called Forest Knolls Wellness, listed as its location the building that now houses a farm stand, a vintage shop and an espresso bar. That building is for sale, and former dispensary operator and reality television star Matthew Shotwell is interested in purchasing it.

But residents are worried about a dispensary’s potential effects on children, who could easily pass by every day, and the possibility of increased crime in an area patrolled only a few times a day by deputies. We are a residential area…I truly believe [a dispensary] will destroy the character of the valley,” one person said at the planning group meeting.

Another said, “I have two young children… It will no longer be a safe haven to explore.” 

One mother, Amena Hajjar, said 74 percent of middle schoolers in the Lagunitas School District live in Forest Knolls or Lagunitas, meaning they must pass by the property to get to school. “That’s a huge number of children being exposed,” she said.

In response to concerns about passing children, the lawyer for Forest Knolls Wellness, Natalia Thurston, wrote a letter to the county in late October floating the idea of locating the dispensary at the back of the building. Ms. Thurston said this week that they are trying to figure out if such a change would comply with the ordinance’s requirements regarding visibility.

Attendees at the planning group meeting also emphasized that a dispensary could bring droves of patrons from over the hill. Many pled with the group to formally oppose the project, believing a letter from them would carry extra weight with the county administrator, who is charged with making the final call. (In a frustrating twist for opponents, only the dispensary applicant can appeal the administrator’s decision.)

Some on the board, though not advocating for the project, responded to fears of crime by saying the ordinance imposed a number of rules and procedures on operations.

But that did not seem to assuage residents. Mark Daley, of Woodacre, noted that strip clubs and liquor stores can abide by the law. “But the fact that businesses can successfully follow the rules doesn’t mean they belong here,” he said. 

One trustee said at the school board meeting that he once worked beside a dispensary. It always smelled like weed, he said, despite the operator constantly telling people not to smoke on the premises.

Ms. Thurston reiterated that smoking is not allowed at the site and said product would come to the dispensary prepackaged, per new state laws.

And it’s safe to say that the absence of a dispensary does not eliminate youth exposure to marijuana. Liza Crosse, a valley resident and aide to supervisor Steve Kinsey, noted at the planning group meeting that “our children are surrounded by it.” 

According to statistics from the 2013-14 school year, over 40 percent of freshman at Tamalpais Union High School District, where Lagunitas students go to Drake High—start using drugs or alcohol at or before age 14. 

Mr. Staley said the group would conduct a membership poll. If the group decides there are “clear, germane concerns,” it would send a letter. In the meantime, he encouraged people sending letters to couch their objections and arguments not just in emotions but in concrete policies or guidelines, such as the San Geronimo Valley Community Plan. And if people want a voice in the planning group, he said, they can join as a member.

Shreya Laroche, a San Geronimo resident and mother of two, lives just 100 feet or so from the property. “Little kids live close by… if it’s not appropriate to be in proximity to school, then why is it okay to be close to where kids live?” she said after the meeting, as she filled out a membership form. 

Another concern arose at both meetings over the impact of the passage of Proposition 64, which legalizes recreational marijuana. The state does not have to start issuing permits for businesses until 2018, and it’s unclear what may happen in the interim. 

According to the Los Angeles Times, a state lawmaker said the legislature “will likely consider allowing existing medical dispensaries to be given temporary interim power to sell marijuana for recreational use until the new licensing system is in place.”

Tom Lai, assistant director of the Community Development Agency, said that if such a scenario played out, the county would comply with state law. But, he added, both Prop 64 and last year’s medical marijuana law allow local jurisdictions to either allow or ban marijuana businesses.

And it appears that a ban on recreational marijuana storefronts in Marin may be in the works. The county’s medical marijuana website says, “The Board of Supervisors may consider additional prohibitions on recreational cannabis businesses and cultivation in January 2017.”