Thursday, October 1, 2009

Medical marijuana laws get continued scrutiny

Medical marijuana laws get continued scrutiny

By ERIC LINDBERG — Sept. 30, 2009

During their second attempt to beef up laws that regulate medical marijuana dispensaries, Santa Barbara city leaders listened through another lengthy session of public input before making decisions on several of many issues that have cropped up due to the proliferation of pot shops.

Along with agreeing that a cap on the number of dispensaries allowed to operate in the city would be appropriate, members of the ordinance committee moved toward requiring dispensaries that had been grandfathered in under the current ordinance to conform with the regulations within a shorter, six-month period.

However, time ran out before the committee could address other potential changes to laws concerning pot shops. Some community members have asked for stricter security, an increased buffer zone around schools and parks, and a moratorium on new dispensaries, citing an increase in crime and negative neighborhood impacts.

Others have urged city officials to protect access to medical marijuana for those who legitimately use the drug to treat chronic pain and other ailments.

At least 15 dispensaries exist in the city, ranging from several that have been approved by city officials but haven’t opened yet to others that are operating illegally. City leaders noted that it is unclear if the current regulations are sufficient, as many of the pot shops are operating outside the law.

“Our entire experience is with illegal dispensaries and ones that are currently non-conforming,” Councilmember Das Williams said, arguing that the city needs to speed up the process to get all dispensaries operating under the current rules. “That’s the only way we can even tell if our regulation is good or bad.”

That discussion spawned a proposal to shorten the period of time for non-conforming dispensaries to get in step with the rules, and the committee ultimately agreed to recommend that the full council drop that timeframe down from 18 months to six months.

“Since we did try to craft a rational ordinance and since we are trying to make more changes to that ordinance to make it better, I think it’s a reasonable change to reduce the amount of time the existing nonconforming dispensaries have to come into conformance,” Councilmember Dale Francisco said.

The committee also agreed that placing a cap on the overall number of dispensaries citywide is a good idea and agreed that it would be making a recommendation along those lines in the future, although the specifics of that plan will likely be ironed out when the discussion continues in the coming weeks.

“We do want a cap,” Williams said, adding, “We may want to parcel that out geographically.”

Responding to concerns expressed by residents of the lower Eastside community, where several dispensaries have sprung up along Milpas and Haley streets, he said a reasonable cap would certainly prevent any more pot shops from opening along the Milpas Street corridor.

But for many who spoke during the public comment period, including Superintendent Brian Sarvis of the Santa Barbara School Districts, there are already too many dispensaries in that area.

“We would prefer that you shut down the Milpas corridor altogether,” Sarvis said, describing how a student told him recently, “This stuff is becoming so easy to get we might as well put it in our vending machines.”

After continuing the hearing to a later date — which had yet to be determined — Williams warned those in attendance that public comment would likely be limited in the future unless geared toward a specific part of the ordinance up for discussion.

“If we spend the whole meeting listening to your concerns, we can’t do anything to strengthen the regulations,” he said.

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