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Clamping Down on San Diego's Cannabis Clubs

As published in San Diego News Network

by Steve Francis

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

With drug activists winning a key legal victory this spring, San Diego County must now cooperate with the state’s controversial medical marijuana regime. As our local elected officials work to meet the needs of pot patients, they must also safeguard everyday residents with equal vigor, who are under threat of an unregulated cannabis trade that is growing under the radar.

At issue are “cannabis clubs,” medical marijuana dispensaries which under state law are run by cooperatives and collectives, and sell plants and processed pot to patients. Though often out of sight of many residents, cannabis clubs are in fact thriving in our city; according to the San Diego Police Department, there were approximately 40 cannabis clubs operating within city limits in May 2006, including mobile door-to-door delivery services.

Little has been done to oversee cannabis clubs in San Diego, as our County leadership has for years resisted enforcing Proposition 215, a 1996 state ballot measure that undermined national drug laws, and our fundamental federalist form of jurisprudence. However, this legal conflict has effectively come to an end with the California Supreme Court denying the county government’s appeal of the measure in May 2009. Today, qualifying residents can receive county identification cards that authorize them to use, possess and transport marijuana from clubs that, at least in the City of San Diego, are dangerously unregulated.

Without public input or special regulatory oversight, many of these clubs have operated in a manner that dangerously erodes the quality of life in our community. According to a June 2007 report from the City Attorney’s Office, there is a long history of citizen complaints of cannabis clubs in San Diego, including purported pot smoking near establishments, marijuana re-sales shortly after club purchases, and proximity to schools and children-centric locations. Some local clubs have even been victims of armed robberies, and many cities have seen concerns only grow over time, particularly in the City of San Francisco.

In 2005, San Franciscans were disturbed to learn that the explosive growth of cannabis clubs had surpassed the number of fast-food restaurants in the city. Reacting to the public outcry, Mayor Gavin Newsom worried that the city had “a path that would allow for a club on every street corner,” and called for stricter rules, particularly after the media reported that one club shockingly planned to open up in a city-funded welfare hotel, and another had opened in the same building that housed a substance abuse treatment program. With community input, new laws were put into place, requiring a stringent permit review process that included public hearings, criminal and employment background checks of club workers, and restricting clubs to non-residential areas and places more than 1,000 feet from schools and youth centers. As a result, many clubs closed or relocated to commercial areas, ultimately shrinking to nearly half the total today as four years ago, an important measurable benchmark which the City of San Diego is unable to provide.

There is no official accurate tally of cannabis clubs in San Diego, but an analysis of online club directories and city business license records indicates that at least 37 cannabis clubs are operating within city limits today. Many of those that can be identified are alarmingly new in town; at least 10 clubs have received a city business license within the last 90 days. An additional nine license applications have been processed for businesses with names that suspiciously sound like cannabis clubs, such as “Delta Nine Healing Cooperative,” which references the chemical name of marijuana’s main psychoactive substance.

With more clubs sure to follow, the Mayor and the City Council must account for the fact that these establishments, however legal under state law they may be, are opening on our streets with less regulatory oversight than we give bars, pharmacies, tobacco shops, liquor stores and adult clubs. That is wrong, and it has to change.

What few city laws we do have governing cannabis clubs and medicinal marijuana possession are inadequate and benefit drug users more than the community. As the San Diego Police Department informed the City Council earlier this month, individual city patients are allowed to possess up to 24 marijuana plants and one pound of processed cannabis, both of which are twice the recommended amounts under guidelines set by the State Attorney General in August 2008. Knowing where pot is being acquired in our community is difficult to determine, and many clubs are unlisted and work under a shroud of secrecy, providing only emails and telephone numbers for patients to contact them. Those that do register for local business licenses have no uniform way of identifying themselves; current cannabis clubs officially list their business type as everything from “holistic health practitioner,” to “food supplement store,” to even “other individual & family services.” The public has no way to determine if and when legitimate clubs are being opened, a serious health and safety issue which other cities have quickly responded to.

In the weeks following the California Supreme Court’s ruling, a growing number of municipalities have passed 45-day interim emergency moratoriums on new cannabis clubs, including the cities of Sacramento, Escondido, Oceanside, Santa Cruz, and San Bernardino County. These moratoriums, which can be extended, allow for “breathing room” and an opportunity for the public to develop regulatory provisions for existing and future clubs to adhere to. It is urgent that the San Diego City Council follow suit, and pass an interim emergency ordinance without delay, as City Hall’s legislative summer break is right around the corner, leaving the door open for more clubs to file for business licenses and open shop without community input. Anything less would disenfranchise the voting public, and their demands for a fair, common-sense approach to regulating the sale of medical marijuana.

No matter our opinions on whether marijuana should be legal or not, we must surely all agree that cannabis clubs shouldn’t be allowed to hide under the obscurity of city bureaucracy. San Diegan families have the right to know when a cannabis club wants to operate in their neighborhood, and must be empowered to provide local lawmakers the guidance they need to determine regulatory approval. Acting quickly on an interim moratorium today can keep our children safe, and the most vulnerable members of our society protected from a controlled substance that is likely to make its presence known in the coming years.