Council Discusses Regulations For Medical Marijuana Shops
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The San Diego City Council is moving closer to formalizing regulations for medical marijuana dispensaries within the city. On Monday, the council voted to start developing regulations on where the dispensaries can be located. Those regulations are based on guidelines submitted by the city's Medical Marijuana Task Force. And joining me to explain what restrictions the city council is considering, and why, are my guests. KPBS senior metro reporter Alison St John, who covered the city council meeting yesterday. And good morning, Alison.
ALISON ST JOHN (KPBS Senior Metro Reporter): Morning, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: And Alex Kreit is chair of the city’s Medical Marijuana Task Force. He is a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law. And good morning, Alex.
ALEX KREIT (Chairman, Medical Marijuana Task Force, City of San Diego): Good morning. Thanks for having me.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Alison, I’m wondering, can you explain to us what exactly was the issue before the city council yesterday?
ST JOHN: Well, you put it exactly right in your introduction. It’s sort of the beginning of the whole city council getting on board with the process. So they didn’t actually finalize anything but they did agree mutually that they would go ahead and allow the staff to work on an ordinance, a zoning ordinance, that would change the current land use permitting process so that they could decide where—and this is a where kind of a question—the medicinal marijuana dispensaries could be located around the city because currently there are more than 100 of them operating in the city and technically they’re legal in the sense that there is no permitting process, there are no regulations to give them permission to operate. So it was not the final decision but that will come in a few months, and it was not also anything to do with how you would operate. It wasn’t a how to operate or who would operate, it was a where kind of a question. So that was the discussion yesterday, was now where shall we let these dispensaries be?
CAVANAUGH: And as they talked about where possibly to allow – to actually give these dispensaries permits to establish themselves, were there any criteria that was discussed that they’re thinking of putting in these regulations?
ST JOHN: Well, absolutely. And the marijuana task force that’s been going for – since last fall had made some recommendations that they should be in certain areas, a thousand feet away from schools and playgrounds and libraries. Then the city council weighed in and other people weighed in and there were some other locations that were added to that list including churches and playgrounds, so there’s a lot of restrictions on where they can be close – what they can be close to. And essentially it comes down to light commercial zones, light industrial zones, rather, not commercial, industrial, light industrial zones where there is no residential except possibly if there’s a watchman’s house, would be the only exception. So it’s very, very limited, the places that they could be.
CAVANAUGH: Who spoke at the meeting yesterday, Alison?
ST JOHN: Everybody who spoke were people who were in favor of developing the regulations. Nobody spoke up and said, look, we don’t want any medicinal marijuana dispensaries at all, a moratorium. But there are some local planning groups around the county that I think do – around the city, rather, who do still feel that they’re not happy at all with any dispensaries. But everybody who spoke were people who said, look, this is a health issue, it’s legal according to California state law, has been for forty – 14 years. And we just want the city to provide some reasonable regulations. One gentleman by the name of James Stacy said, look, we want to pay taxes, we want to be legal, we’re trying to do the right thing, we just need you to set the laws so that we can obey them. And another interesting piece of testimony came from Kate Valentine from Americans for Safe Access, which is a group very much in favor of developing regulations so that, you know, they can operate legally. She said her analysis by using mapping showed that there would really only be spots for about 15 dispensaries in the whole city according to the current regulations, which was interesting because a second – another suggestion was made during the meeting that came from letters from some of the universities around that they would like to see the dispensaries set up a thousand feet away from colleges and universities, and that might have reduced the amount of area that was possible even more. So the council split on that one, and they did not add universities to the list.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Alex Kreit, as chair of the Medical Marijuana Task Force for the City of San Diego, in looking at this meeting yesterday and seeing this process begin, what do you think were the most significant developments that came out of the meeting?
KREIT: Umm-hmm. Well, I think that the most significant development is that this shows that the city council is really serious about addressing this issue and providing for reasonable regulations in San Diego. I mean, the vote yesterday really was to start the land use piece of the regulations on a sort of land use process, which the city has a detailed sort of a, you know, somewhat bureaucratic but I think, you know, for good reason, process anytime you want to make an amendment to the land use and zoning code. So I think by this vote, the city council showed, you know, very clearly that they are committed to, you know, getting regulations in place and doing so in a quickly but reasonably, which I think is a good thing, you know, to show that they’re really being proactive about this in contrast to, for example, the City of Los Angeles where, you know, there was a two-year, quote, moratorium but during that moratorium places continued to open and open and open. I think the city council is really acting diligently on this issue.
CAVANAUGH: Now there was – it was said, of course, and it’s true that some of these recommendations are based on the guidelines developed by the Medical Marijuana Task Force. But I’m wondering, in hearing that this – if these guidelines are followed, the number of dispensaries may be reduced from about 100 to about 15. Was that one of the aims of the task force? It seems a rather dramatic reduction.
KREIT: Umm-hmm. Well, I think that the – in terms of the numbers, in terms of the maps, I would say that I do have some concern about what the current map is looking like under what the city council is considering because at least, according to this map from the Americans for Safe Access representative Kate Valentine, it does look, I think, potentially overly restrictive in the number of locations where places can be. And it’s important to remember that these locations aren’t – it doesn’t mean that a place could automatically open up in one of those places. Those are just places where a dispensary could theoretically open up, and then they would have to go through a very lengthy permitting process. And so in some of those locations, they might not even be able to get permits because despite being technically allowed, you know, the community for one reason or another might not want it in those places. You know, I would say, though, that this really is sort of the start of that land use process and I think that, you know, and I would hope that the city council members, once they start to view the maps, will be able to really sort of get more into the details of the issue. I mean, right now, you could say, well, a thousand feet, these zones, and you sort of say it, I think, mostly, okay, what sounds like it might be reasonable but it’s not until you really map that out that you get a clear, clear picture. And I think that’s really going to be – it’s starting to happen now and I think that’s going to be the process going forward as it goes through this land use process. So I would hope that, you know, as the process continues they might add back in a few other commercial zones. I mean, we recommended all industrial and commercial zones be potential places where they can locate. One of the city council committees scaled that back pretty dramatically and so, you know, my hope would be that going forward perhaps a few other places are added back in so we get a broader map.
CAVANAUGH: Now Alison mentioned that most of the people, in fact all of the people, who spoke at the city council meeting yesterday were very supportive of medicinal marijuana clinics but I know as chairman of the task force, you heard from a lot of people who had real serious concerns and complaints about where the dispensaries were located right now, and what did you hear from the neighbors of dispensaries that caused them concern?
KREIT: Right now, I think the chief concern is that there really is no regulation and so dispensaries could open up anywhere, you know, by a school, you know, literally, right across the street from a school. And I think communities are concerned and I think rightly so that in the absence of regulations, places can open up anywhere and I think almost even more important than that, there’s no permitting process to determine who’s opening a place up. And so I think a good number of the dispensaries out there are operating legally and within the law and in good faith and really trying to do it legitimately for a medical purpose. And then you see others where they’re just, you know, marijuana leafs in neon green on the front and really not making any, I think, effort to try and operate within the spirit of the law and trying to skirt the law. And what’s allowing them to do that is that absence of regulation, the absence of a permitting requirement. In fact, they can just go up and open up shop pretty much anywhere they want right now. And I think that’s the main concern, and I think that that is – that concern is exactly what the regulation will address.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Alex Kreit. He is chair of the city’s Medical Marijuana Task Force, along with being a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law. And with KPBS senior metro reporter Alison St John. There are some callers who want to get involved. Marcy is calling us from Pacific Beach. Good morning, Marcy, and welcome to These Days.
MARCY (Caller, Pacific Beach): Oh, hi. Thanks for taking my call. I think the regulations are not strict enough. A thousand feet is only three blocks, so we’re going to have possible dispensaries three blocks from schools. And also community commercial, they’re allowed in community commercial which is basically the commercial on the main street of a community that’s surrounded by residential. And the important thing is that the medical marijuana concept has been hijacked by these stores that are basically selling to recreational users and making huge profits because anybody can get a doctor’s recommendation for marijuana for fifty bucks for any ailment, headaches, anxiety, insomnia, so it’s all – the whole thing is totally messed up and our community’s not going to be protected.
CAVANAUGH: Marcy, thank you for the comment.
CAVANAUGH: I want to take another call from Gabriel in Oak Park. Good morning, Gabriel, and welcome to These Days.
GABRIEL (Caller, Oak Park): Good morning. Hello. Hi, I had a question about – I don’t know that much about alcohol regulation as far as, you know, permits to sell alcohol, like liquor stores, and I’m just wondering if there’s any similarity between what’s being discussed now for the dispensaries and what’s already in place for alcohol? And if there is a discrepancy why there would be a difference between the two regulations.
CAVANAUGH: Gabriel, thank you. And, Alex, did you look at the permitting and zoning requirements for liquor stores when you were considering the medical marijuana recommendations?
KREIT: Umm-hmm. We did take a look at some of the permitting requirements, the processes for liquor stores. I do think that we viewed this ultimately as different in some significant ways from liquor stores because here with medical marijuana, at the end of the day I think we’re really dealing with a health issue. And so, you know, I view it more like a, you know, CVS or a Rite Aid or something like that where it really is a medicinal issue at its heart. That said, I mean, the regulations that the council is considering now for the medical marijuana collectives and cooperatives are significantly more restrictive than what you’d have for liquor stores. I mean, you – And I think that you can sort of see that just from the numbers of – that, you know, under the current maps, maybe 15, 20 locations that places could operate, and I think we all know there’s significantly more places where alcohol is bought and sold. One thing I would say, you know, that makes this a little trickier than just treating it exactly like a CVS is that CVS dispenses federally regulated controlled substances and really, I think, at the heart of the problem is the fact that marijuana remains a Schedule I substance under federal law, illegal for any purpose. And because of that, you know, one of the most frequent questions I get is why can’t you just have this sold at the Rite Aid, at the CVS. The reason is because of federal law. I think in the ideal world that would be how it would be regulated and then it would just be treated like any other medication. But, unfortunately, until federal law changes that can’t be possible and there needs to be this separate dispensary system for medical marijuana.
CAVANAUGH: Alison, what comes next regarding what was discussed by the city council? How long is it going to take them to move on these zoning regulations?
ST JOHN: Well, it’s going to come back, they think, probably in January. And Todd Gloria, who’s been one of the council members who’s been really trying to move this along, he actually sounded almost tired yesterday when he said, you know, politics is the art of what’s possible. So, you know, we’ve reached a compromise here where at least we can move ahead even if it doesn’t please either side. And staff will go away and work not only on the where but also the how, the operational permitting, and come back to the city council probably in January.
CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you very much. I think one of the big questions that we can get into now is how Prop 19 might tie into this story if, indeed, the voters approve legalizing marijuana in November. Might that trump this whole issue, Alex?
KREIT: No, I don’t think it would and the reason is is that Prop 19, nothing in Prop 19 would affect the medical marijuana laws on the books. And most importantly, Prop 19 wouldn’t create a distribution system for recreational marijuana statewide, it would only be if a locality wanted to opt into permitting a taxed and controlled system for recreational distribution. And so unless the City of San Diego were to decide we just want to regulate marijuana sales generally for any purpose then there might be some impact but I don’t see that happening in the near future. And so because of that, really the medical marijuana collective system is going to be, I think, the only legal system for distributing marijuana within the city and county in the near future, even if Prop 19 were to pass.
CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you very much. Thank you, Alex, very much. And Alison, thanks.
ST JOHN: Thank you, Maureen.
KREIT: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: I want to let everybody know that they can comment online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, a new San Diego County program is aimed at reducing the stigma of mental illness. We’ll hear about that as These Days continues here on KPBS.