CITY HALL — The City Council will consider a moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries in Santa Monica next Tuesday, a move which would disrupt at least one application currently working its way through City Hall.
The call for a preemptive stop on medical marijuana dispensaries within Santa Monica comes amidst a legal environment muddied by a recent appellate court decision on the one hand and the California Supreme Court on the other, said City Manager Rod Gould.
A July decision by a three-judge panel of the Second District Court of Appeal knocked down a ban on dispensaries put in place by Los Angeles County, potentially depriving municipalities of the ability to prevent medical marijuana dispensaries from setting up shop.
However, the state Supreme Court has taken up a number of cases regarding medical marijuana and how it can be regulated, and no one knows how that will turn out or impact past court decisions.
“We need to understand what the status of the law is,” Gould said. “The Supreme Court decided to accept all of the decisions at once, providing clarity for cities and counties in this controversial area. We need time to understand where the legalities lie.”
That isn’t much consolation for Richard McDonald, the man whose license for a “collective cultivation operation” has been held up for several weeks only to now face a much longer delay.
McDonald, who is currently suing City Hall over its denial of a license for a proposed medical marijuana testing facility, has a fairly strong opinion on the moratorium proposal.
“This is the most grotesque example of smoky, back-room politics that I have ever seen in my life,” McDonald said.
City officials denied his application for a business license for the testing facility, saying that he could not prove that the business was allowed under California law. As he sued to overturn that decision, McDonald moved forward with his application for the dispensary, which was already allowed under state law.
McDonald believes that the moratorium was inspired by his application. If approved, his would be the only medical marijuana dispensary in Santa Monica.
Prior efforts to establish dispensaries have been thwarted by the city’s zoning code, which does not explicitly permit medical marijuana dispensaries as an “accepted use.”
City Hall has denied in the past that any de facto ban on medical marijuana dispensaries exists, saying in a July memo to an administrative law judge in McDonald’s original business license case that a person wishing to start a dispensary could try to show the Zoning Administrator that a dispensary is “similar to other explicitly authorized uses” in order to establish themselves within city limits.
The notice announcing the Oct. 2 hearing on the moratorium cited a need for additional regulations controlling medical marijuana facilities along with the desire for additional legal clarity.
Moratoriums used for that purpose can be helpful, said Kris Hermes, spokesperson for medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access.
“Many cities have (enacted moratoriums) as a measure to avoid taking responsibility for developing regulations. Other cities have used it to help,” Hermes said. “It’s unclear what the motivations are in Santa Monica, but we hope the city will work with the medical marijuana patient community to develop a sensible set of guidelines for providers as many other cities have done before it.”
It would be disingenuous for city officials to throw their hands up and say it can’t be done, Hermes said.
The Planning Department has already undergone an extensive analysis of medical marijuana regulations in other localities and how they would apply to Santa Monica.
The report, released as an information item in October 2007, came in reaction to a request from Nathan Hamilton to open a dispensary on the 2200 block of Main Street.
Key issues identified in the report included defining what a dispensary could do, what kind of permit it would need to operate, how far it would have to be away from other “sensitive” uses like schools and neighborhoods, whether the medicine could be grown and consumed on-site and other issues.
The report goes on to identify likely areas in the city for dispensaries. At the time, pieces of Fourth, Fifth and Sixth streets between Colorado Avenue and Olympic Boulevard are 500 or 1,000 feet from every school, park, childcare facility or religious institution and 500 feet away from residential zones, as is the business park near 30th Street and Ocean Park Boulevard.
McDonald holds that his facility on Pennsylvania Avenue — meant to house his medical marijuana testing facility — was carefully selected to meet those criteria as best as possible and should be fine for a dispensary.
“So apparently this is the next maneuver, which I will blunt,” McDonald said.