This Tuesday, the San Diego City Council will review new land use & permitting regulations for medical marijuana dispensaries, which have long been a source of controversy, criminal activity and quality of life problems in our community. Though polling data suggests that the overwhelming majority of San Diego residents are in favor of tough legal mandates for greater safety and accountability from dispensaries, the regulatory package recommended by the Medical Marijuana Task Force (MMTF) falls short of public demands in three major areas.
1) Public transparency is piece-meal and selective. Under the MMTF’s proposal, the notification of new dispensary applications is not required to residents who live nearby a planned dispensary site. The MMTF recommended a two-tiered permitting system allowing dispensary applicants with collective/co-op memberships of 100 people or less to follow the “Process Two” permitting policy, and for those with 100 or more to follow the “Process Three” policy. However, according to the Municipal Code, notices of application and public hearings are only required for “Process Three” permits or higher. It’s unclear how a brand-new dispensary collective, which does not have a permanent site, would have more than 100 members and thus would be required to provide public notification to their future neighbors. City Councilmembers should be mindful that an October 2009 survey of 505 San Diego City adults, conducted by CERC, found that 64% (47% strongly agree, 17% somewhat agree) of San Diegans are in support of residential notification of new nearby dispensary permit applications. It’s also worth mentioning that the lack of mandatory public notification contributed to the undetected explosion of more than 400 medical marijuana dispensaries opening in the City of Los Angeles over the last year.
2) Law enforcement concerns are weakly addressed. San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis has warned our community about dispensaries run by “drug dealers” exploiting state law to profit from cannabis sales, and a recent five-month probe of corrupt cannabis dispensaries by law enforcement officials that led to 14 dispensary closures and 30 arrests. Yet, there is nothing within the MMTF recommendations that would keep ex-offenders and criminals from applying for a new dispensary permit, working for a dispensary, or continue operating an existing dispensary – defying strong public opinions. The CERC poll revealed that a full 87% of San Diego city residents were in favor (76% strongly agree, 11% somewhat agree) of requiring dispensary managers and employees to be fingerprinted and have criminal background checks conducted by local law enforcement officials. This policy is not uncommon – the City & County of San Francisco and Kern County already provide some measure of criminal background verification. The City of Denver is now reviewing a new dispensary ordinance that also includes a provision for criminal background checks of all dispensary applicants, and background check language has been included in a revised version of a new dispensary ordinance for the City of Los Angeles.
3) Taxpayers, not dispensary owners and employees, will shoulder the costs of more unruly dispensaries. The MMTF recommendations do not include financial penalties for dispensary non-compliance with municipal law, nor any cost-recovery fee for permit applications. There is also no proposed cap on the number of dispensary permits that could be obtained in the future, leaving open the possibility for dozens or hundreds of loosely-regulated dispensaries to be operating in our city, as they have in Los Angeles. The unfettered growth of dispensaries could put significant strain on our limited law enforcement resources in San Diego, which are reeling under triple-digit sworn officer attrition, and proposed service cuts and layoffs under the Mayor’s budget-balancing plan for Fiscal Year 2011. The CERC poll found that 63% of San Diego city residents (47% strongly opposed, 16% somewhat opposed) are opposed to increasing the number of existing dispensaries if dispensary growth will require additional law enforcement resources during our budget crisis.
I am optimistic that the City Council will address these and many other major concerns with dispensary regulation this Tuesday. Resolving them may require amending the MMTF recommendations, or providing explicit instructions to the MMTF to discuss them in future sessions. Regardless, it is important that City Hall send a clear signal to thousands of concerned San Diego residents that dispensary rules will protect the interests of the public as much as they will protect patient access to medical marijuana products.