Dispensary Regulators…Mount Up

By Benjie Cooper

On November 8, 2016, California voters made their voices heard on the issue of cannabis for the second time in twenty years. Following Prop 215’s ushering-in of medical marijuana in 1996, Prop 64’s passage allowed for the recreational use of marijuana in the state. Along with this change in state law, there has risen a seemingly endless stream of legal battles between dispensaries and the cities in which they operate. After the passage of Prop 64, some cities preemptively banned medical marijuana sales until clear policies are established.

While the San Diego City Council approved regulations for recreational cannabis in January, on March 15, the County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to ban all medical marijuana dispensaries in unincorporated areas of the county. The illegal co-ops have five years to comply. Due to current zoning laws, dispensaries are illegal in the city of Vista. Sheriffs have been conducting armed raids for years but have increased their frequency recently. Medicinal marijuana products, cash, and patient records were among the items seized during the raids. Employees have been arrested, and in at least one case, patients were also handcuffed in the waiting room.

Around 35 people testified for nearly two hours at a Vista City Council meeting on March 14, speaking about the importance of local access to medical cannabis for themselves or the disabled, sick, and dying patients in their care. Though the majority of the people in attendance came out to support the licensing and regulation of dispensaries in Vista, there were a few in attendance that voiced their opposition to the businesses being allowed to operate.

Craig Balbeen of the North Coastal Prevention Coalition claims, “All storefronts do is tell our youth that ‘hey, it’s okay, the cities allow marijuana, and it’s not dangerous.’ Um, it is very dangerous.”

But the residents of Vista might be inclined to disagree. A recent poll indicated 75% of the town’s residents believe that cannabis has medical benefits. While anecdotal evidence might be considered dismissible by some, there are many publicly available studies that prove the efficacy of marijuana for a variety of diseases and conditions. Regardless, NCPC program director Erica Leary states that storefront dispensaries are really about “making money and profits.”

At this point, there is a bit of a split among the City Council members as to what to do. Some of them have expressed concerns with, among other issues, the fact that marijuana is still illegal at the Federal level. Deputy Mayor John Franklin states that he cannot vote for any legislation that “violates the Constitution and the supreme law of the land.” Councilman John Aguilera says that he intends to listen to the voters who put him into office.

Even with the split, the council staff has been instructed to begin drafting a proposal to explore various ways to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries in Vista. They expect to have a report by the end of April, and a vote on the issue is rumored to happen in June.

As recreational cannabis makes its way into the Californian marketplace, and the medical marijuana system gets a major overhaul in the form of new state regulations in 2018, cities across the state will need to adopt clear marijuana policies. Preferably, ones that are in line with the will of the citizens. City staff should also remember the potential revenue boost from tax on licensed cannabis sales. Properly taxed and regulated, these businesses have proved to be profitable and productive in other legal states. If council members are not willing to listen to the people that voted them into their representative positions, they need to be replaced by those who will. Vista has opened the discussion on dispensary licensing and regulation. To avoid conflict in the future, cities across the state will need to step up and do the same in this new age of cannabis legalization.