Pot LawCITY HALL — The debate on whether medical marijuana dispensaries have a place in Santa Monica is back in the news.

The City Council Tuesday is expected to decide whether or not to extend for one year the moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries. Santa Monica currently does not have any dispensaries and City Hall does not recognize them as legitimate businesses.

But there’s some concern among advocates who want to lift the moratorium, arguing patients should have access to marijuana, which has been recognized as a medicine by the state but not by the federal government, which still considers it an addictive drug on the level of cocaine, LSD and ecstasy.

For the first time in more than four decades of polling on the issue, a majority of Americans favor legalizing the use of marijuana, according to a national survey conducted by the Pew Research Center earlier this year. Over 50 percent of those surveyed said that the use of marijuana should be made legal while 45 percent said it should not. Support for legalizing marijuana has risen 11 points since 2010.

Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, said the City Council has stalled for too long and it’s time to take action. The Marijuana Policy Project is a Washington, D.C.-based organization that wants to legally regulate marijuana.

O’Keefe wrote a letter to the City Council in favor of marijuana dispensaries. O’Keefe said it would be a shame if Santa Monica continued to treat “this important medicine” as if it was wrong or shameful.

“At long last, I hope Santa Monica’s medical marijuana patients will be able to obtain a medicine that improves their quality of life in their own city. I urge you to enact an ordinance this summer to allow and regulate a limited number of medical marijuana dispensaries,”  O’Keefe wrote.

Last October, the City Council passed a 45-day moratorium against dispensaries, which was later extended to allow planners time to poll the community and research how best to approach the issue.

The question of medical marijuana dispensaries in Santa Monica re-emerged last year when Richard McDonald set up a medical marijuana testing facility on Pennsylvania Avenue. Rather than selling marijuana, McDonald was testing pot brought in by other dispensaries to provide information about possible pesticide contamination and even what kinds of symptoms the medicine would best treat. City Hall refused to issue him a business license, and McDonald opened without one. He’s currently fighting a legal battle with City Hall to win the right to re-open.

In the meantime, McDonald decided to compromise. If he could not open a testing facility with any ease, he would open a dispensary, which was legal under California law, if not federal law.

Santa Monicans have in the past shown signs of support for the use of marijuana, or at least the decriminalization of it. In 2006, Santa Monica voters passed a measure that made marijuana smoking by adults in their own homes the lowest law enforcement priority, even under barking dogs. That means the Santa Monica Police Department has to respond to every other call they have before attending to a report of pot smoking in someone’s home.

City Councilmember Robert Holbrook said there are plenty of medical marijuana dispensaries close to Santa Monica along Venice Boulevard, giving patients alternatives. He said it would be problematic to have them in the city.

“There’s … armed guards [and] tremendous amounts of cash involved,” Holbrook said. “[To] the best of my knowledge, the medical marijuana sold in these stores is not always obtained from some legal source. I don’t want to be involved in trafficking of drugs from illegal fields.”

City Councilmember Ted Winterer said it makes sense to extend the ban for the short term and address the possibility of some restricted dispensaries in a very limited area of operation near the medical district, which is the area near Saint John’s and Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center.

Councilmember Kevin McKeown said every time the moratorium ordinance has been renewed, it’s not the intent of the council to prohibit dispensaries forever, but to give themselves time to learn from the mistakes Los Angeles and others have made and sort through legal issues.

“The court ruling doesn’t prohibit marijuana dispensaries, it enables us to do them right, specifically because we don’t have to,” McKeown said.

He said he was disappointed with the federal government on its stance on marijuana being inherently dangerous and criminal.

Since the moratorium, City Hall held a community meeting in February to discuss pot dispensaries, and the California Supreme Court ruled that local jurisdictions could regulate or ban medical marijuana uses.

Bill Leahy, spokesperson for Santa Monicans for Safe Access, a coalition of Santa Monica medical marijuana patients, said it was surprising the City Council is trying to extend the moratorium beyond Oct. 1.

“A year has gone by and they’re asking for more time,” Leahy said. “I think they kind of wasted a lot of valuable time.”

He said he was dismayed elected officials haven’t listened to their constituents.

“The job of the council is to convey the will of the people,” Leahy said. “The people have spoken.”

 

ameera@smdp.com

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