Friday, October 23, 2009

The Marijuana Mile March

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'MARIJUANA MILE' MARCH : Protesters decry proliferation of pot dispensaries; demand tighter controls

Above, protesters march down Gutierrez Street in an area they call the Marijuana Mile because of its concentration of pot dispensaries, many of them operating outside the city's ordinance governing such facilities. Below, children lead the march along Anacapa Street. At bottom, mayoral candidate Dale Francisco speaks at a rally after the march.

October 11, 2009 6:43 AM

One of the most contentious issues in Santa Barbara was brought to the forefront on Saturday with a march across downtown to protest the proliferation of marijuana dispensaries in the city.

Organizers and politicians gathered to express their outrage over what they see as a lack of enforcement which has had negative consequences in Santa Barbara.

About 45 people gathered at Ortega Park for a march through what they called the marijuana mile, a group of about 10 dispensaries that are within a few blocks of each other. A major point of contention is that these dispensaries, which some argue are so densely clustered as to instigate crime in the area, are also very close to centers where young children gather. Santa Barbara Junior High School and Girls Inc. are just outside the mandatory 500 foot distance, but close enough to be affected, protesters said.

According to the downtown organizations that sponsored the march, a primary problem has been the proliferation of dispensaries that are out of compliance with the city's dispensary ordinance. The regulations, which put limits on dispensaries, do not apply to those dispensaries that had already received business permits when the ordinance took effect and are already operating in the city, they said, which means that some dispensaries are closer than 500 feet apart. Those dispensaries are being given a certain amount of time to conform to those regulations or lose their licenses.

Brian Sarvis, the superintendent of the Santa Barbara School Districts, said that the dispensaries have been a major problem for schools and have resulted in increased drug use among students. "I voted for medical marijuana, and I assumed that people would be able to go to the pharmacy and get their prescription, like any other prescription," he said. "It has really spiraled out of control. Many of our students have come to school high, or with marijuana. When we ask them about it, they pull out a card and say, 'Hey, it's all right.' "

Once students turn 18 years old -- almost half of all high school seniors -- they are eligible to go to doctor and get a prescription for medical marijuana, he said. From that point, they register with health services, and receive a card in the mail. Dr. Sarvis said it has been remarkably easy to get a prescription, and said that kids can often get an appointment from the dispensary with a doctor in a parking lot.

"It's out of control. The faucet has been opened, and it is so easy to get it. Kids tell me you can just go in and buy a prescription." He added that many who are caught say it is so easy, you might as well sell it from vending machines.

Some in the community have said that crime has increased since dispensaries have been in the area. "We're engaged in an entire cultural shift in the downtown area, and it's to bring in unwanted impacts," said one resident who declined to be identified for fear of reprisals. "Santa Barbara is becoming ground zero in the South Coast for marijuana dispensaries, because all other cities have banned them. It's really getting crazy."

The resident said that most of the dispensaries are now illegal, since the attorney general of California had recently declared that dispensaries must now be collectives and not for profit, and that dispensaries in the area are for-profit businesses. Downtown groups are also trying to change the local ordinance by extending the distance between dispensaries from 500 feet to one mile, and to closely monitor where the marijuana comes from in the first place, which the resident said is not being regulated right now.

"I just love our downtown. I love living downtown, and it's already unfriendly," the resident said. "It's changed so much over the last few years. Proliferation of dispensaries is not the model."

Three mayoral candidates were on hand to give their perspective on the problem.

"There are three problems," said Councilwoman Helene Schneider. "One, is the proliferation of illegal dispensaries that needs to be shut down right now. Two, we need a cap. Three is the proximity to schools. When we voted for it, I imagined this would apply to schools and areas where young people gather," she said, which would include centers like Girls Inc.

Currently, Ms. Schneider said there are two dispensaries which are illegally operating without permits, and three dispensaries which are legally non-conforming, meaning that they received a business license before the city passed an ordinance. The city is actively cracking down on illegal dispensaries, she said. "They should be shut down, either through criminal citations or zoning ordinances. They should be shut down and the city is working on this," she said.

California laws have outlawed marijuana dispensed at pharmacies, and the cities are left to determine how they would like to regulate their own dispensaries, she said. Since the legalization of medical marijuana in the late 1990s, the state has designated a "care-giver" to dispense it, although this does not have to be a dispensary.

Councilman Dale Francisco, who is also running for mayor, agreed that the dispensaries need to be more tightly regulated. "We've got a lot of illegal ones, that's a huge problem, but I think we have a problem with the ordinance itself," he said, adding that it has increased the city's problem with illegal use as well. "I am fine with providing medical marijuana for patients in a safe, legal way. That's what compassionate use is all about. The problem is the whole dispensary idea. This was never a part of state law, and the courts are saying the cities have the right to outlaw dispensaries."

Mr. Francisco said he wanted the city to adopt a cooperative approach for dispensing marijuana, in which members of the collective act as their own caregivers by growing and consuming the marijuana themselves without profit, similar to what is happening in Los Angeles. If the city cannot create an ordinance for using collectives, he said he would prefer to see dispensaries outlawed all together.

The councilman is also on the ordinance committee, which has set a 16-month timeline for legally non-conforming dispensaries to comply with guidelines, which might involve some of them having to relocate or risk being shut down. He said the committee is looking at narrowing this timeline even further. "Obviously, this is very controversial. This isn't settled by any means," Mr. Francisco said. "As a city councilmember, I have been getting so much e-mail on this. This is obviously an important issue for us."

Bob Hansen, another mayoral candidate, was on hand to voice his support of the dispensaries, although he still backs more regulations. "I think the (allowable) number shouldn't be so high, and I think there should be a two week limit (for visits)," he said. A cap should be set at around 10, not 25, and a lottery system may be able to determine who will be allowed to open a dispensary while they are being closely monitored, he said. "In America, you should be able to go to your doctor and get it, if you're not selling it or doing it too much."

He also shared concerns about the dispensary pot falling into the hands of children. "You do have to be careful about it. We should n our kids about it. When I was younger, I did smoke it and get lackadaisical. We really need to teach our kids how to make good choices," he said.

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