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Hearing Both Sides on San Diego's Cannabis Clubs

As published in the San Diego Daily Transcript

by Steve Francis

Thursday, October 8, 2009

With drug activists winning a key legal victory this spring, the City of San Diego must set new policies to regulate the local cultivation and distribution of medical marijuana. As a citizen’s commission is now formed to address the needs of the cannabis community, 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 is the 11-member San Diego medical marijuana task force, which was formed by the City Council to advise on new guidelines for law enforcement and rules relating to medical marijuana patients and dispensaries. The task force, which was officially appointed this week, will shortly begin deliberations in what could be a year long process of hearing testimony, reviewing laws, and debating viewpoints on an urgent health and safety issue that has quietly crept up in our neighborhoods.

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 over the last two decades, 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 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. There is also an important question as to who they are primarily serving in our region.

In 2005 and 2006, federal drug enforcement officials seized 3,636 patient records from San Diego dispensaries, and found that most local medical marijuana patients are young and have non-life threatening ailments. In all, 41% of patients were ages 21-30, 12 were under 21 years, and only 2% of all patients had serious medical conditions, such as AIDs, glaucoma, and cancer. 98% were found to have comparatively less serious symptoms, ranging from muscle spasms, to insomnia, anxiety, and headaches. Is this what voters approved in 1996 on the state ballot? It’s unlikely that many San Diegans would say yes.

Though there is no official accurate tally of cannabis clubs in San Diego, an analysis of online club directories and city business license records indicates that at least 20 cannabis clubs are operating within city limits today. Though City Hall officially suspended permitting additional cannabis dispensaries this summer, many of those that can be identified are alarmingly new in town. Today, these cannabis clubs 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.

Providing for a new regulatory framework for marijuana dispensaries that safeguards citizens may prove challenging, as many surrounding cities in our region have begun to restrict access to medical marijuana, adding more pressures for the City of San Diego to provide for the needs of the growing number of cannabis patients. Temporary moratoriums on new cannabis dispensaries have been passed throughout our county, including the unincorporated areas of San Diego County, Escondido, Oceanside, Chula Vista, Imperial Beach and San Marcos, and according to the San Diego Union-Tribune, half a dozen cities have also passed permanent dispensary bans. Important issues, such as dispensary signage, operating hours, and proximity to schools and youth centers must be addressed not from the perspective of the cannabis community, but from the 1.3 million residents and thousands of families that call the City of San Diego their home.

The San Diego medical marijuana task force must heed the voices and concerns of the populace that will have to live with the decisions they make at City Hall. Taking a balanced approach to setting new guidelines 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.