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(USA) Three cities, three approaches to selling pot

Santa Rosa, Vallejo and Oakland each take a different tack on medical marijuana dispensaries.

Napa is considering whether to allow and how to regulate dispensaries, and has declared a six- to nine-month moratorium on such operations as it prepares to draft its own ordinance.

Many cities and counties across the state have gone before it, introducing ordinances that lay out rules for dispensaries.

Vallejo does not allow dispensaries, since the city’s municipal code doesn’t provide for such a use, said a city official.

In Santa Rosa, two dispensaries operate under tight controls, with limits on patients and products.

Oakland requires potential marijuana entrepreneurs to undergo a rigorous process before securing one of the city’s four permits.

Each approach offers food for thought as Napa approaches the subject.


Vallejo’s philosophy on medical marijuana is summed up in a three-sentence bulletin the city issued on Jan. 21. It acknowledges that collectives or cooperatives may be authorized elsewhere under certain circumstances, but the city of Vallejo doesn’t allow them.

Michelle Hightower, the city’s acting planning manager, declined to explain the city’s position further. “My comment is exactly what this document states,” she said. “The dispensaries are not allowed or permitted in the city because this type of use isn’t allowed.”

The policy hasn’t stopped dispensaries from cropping up. Linda Jimenez, secretary and treasurer of the Solano Patients Group, the local chapter of the medical marijuana activist group Compassionate Coalition, knows of two operating in Vallejo — the only ones she knows of in the entire county.

They operate without drawing attention to their locations and advertise only in inner circles.

“You really don’t want to advertise, because you put a target on yourself,” said Jimenez, who is also chairwoman of the Compassionate Coalition.

The one that Jimenez visited operates like a high-security pharmacy or doctor’s office. Security officers screen patients at the door to make sure they have medical marijuana cards.

They wait in a room until they are called into another area of the building, where someone fills their prescription only after checking with their doctor.

“They’re doing it by the book,” she said.

As one of the sole operators in a city that Jimenez says doesn’t support them, she worries the dispensary will be raided.

Jimenez has filed suit against the county, arguing that the ban was put in place improperly without public notice. She said she is fighting for patients’ rights.

“We’re going to keep fighting,” she said.

Santa Rosa

Santa Rosa’s ordinance is a 16-page document that covers everything from operating hours to patient limits and dispensary locations.

The city was mum on the issue until two dispensaries opened under the moniker of “wellness centers” and became a focal point for problems, said Noah Housh, city planner. In part because of their locations, they seemed to draw break-ins and other crimes.

City officials took notice and drafted a law regulating dispensaries.

The ordinance limits the number of dispensaries in the city to two, limits the number of patients each can serve to 500, provides that no operator should have a criminal record, details location restrictions and spells out security measures each should take.

At Sonoma Patient Group, for example, security cameras blanketing the premises record video and audio, said Dave McCullick, one of owners of the dispensary.

Anyone who enters must be buzzed in. The marijuana is kept in a 500-pound safe within a “safe room.”

“The ordinance gives us a lot of teeth as far as revocation their approvals” should they not comply, Housh said.

Dispensaries have been careful because the permits are precious, he said.

Housh believes the previous problems have stopped.

As for Santa Rosa residents, “Most of the citizens are supportive of the use, but the specific locations can sometimes get a little contentious.”

The city established the two-permit limit with the idea that more dispensaries might be approved someday. However, the second dispensary never reached its 500-patient capacity and has closed, Housh said.

The city is processing another applications.

McCullick supports the idea of regulating the clubs, but feels Santa Rosa has gone too far.

“Santa Rosa is probably one of the most restrictive ordinances I’ve seen in the state,” he said.

The rules limit the products dispensaries can sell to cannabis only. Books, classes, massage, acupuncture and other services are off limits, McCullick said.

He also takes issue with the 500-patient limit.

“We turn a lot of people away every month that we could be helping,” he said.

Sonoma Patient Group reaps about $1.6 million annually in gross revenue. Half of that goes toward purchasing the product from patients who grow marijuana. The rest covers operating costs.

McCullick estimates he could double that figure sans the patient limit.

Since dispensaries must be non-profit, he would lower the prices if his revenue went up.

The city is open to further conversation, but hasn’t seen a need to up the patient levels, Housh said.

“We’ll see how it goes once the other one gets up and running,” Housh said.


Prior to 2004, Oakland had no controls on dispensaries. At least a dozen opened under ambiguous names with zoning clearances for things such as “hydroponics,” said Barbara Killey, Oakland’s administrative hearing officer.

They became magnets for robberies, violence, illegal drug sales and other problems, she said.

“The city council decided that we wanted to support the goals of the medical cannabis state law, but do it in a way that was more controlled,” Killey said.

It drafted an ordinance setting a limit of four dispensaries and took applications from a number of interested parties. Two lost their permits within a year due to building code violations.

“We were pretty surprised that our initial occupants lost their permits,” she said. “It seemed like a pretty valuable right.”

After that, the city refined the application, making it more rigorous.

All applicants must take a test on city and state law, submit a business plan and adhere to other requirements. Dispensaries must offer other services besides medical marijuana, such as classes, programs for indigent patients, massage and yoga.

“They’re medical facilities; it only makes sense,” she said. “If this is not a pretense and we really believe there’s medical value, then they need to function as medical facilities.”

The regulations seemed to work, Killey said.

“All the problems went away,” she said. “They are probably some of the safest locations in the city.”

Oakland Police Department spokesman Jeff Thomason vouched that his department has not seen any issues arise from dispensaries.

Steve DeAngelo, the executive director of Harborside Health Center, was one of 11 applicants in the second round.

While he noted obtaining the permit was a rigorous process, he doesn’t think it is too restrictive.

“We are asking our citizens for a great deal of trust, which is, we are asking our citizens to handle a controlled substance,” he said.

As an operator himself, he frowned on the shadowy results before the ordinance.

“When you don’t regulate the industry, you have people entering the industry that are comfortable with those gray areas,” he said.

DeAngelo has sought to make his center operate with more transparency, he said. When a patient comes in, the center validates that the prescribing doctor is licensed and in good standing with the state medical board. It also verifies the prescription.

Then, the patient signs an agreement to join the center’s collective.

The center acts as a clearinghouse between patients who can grow and those who can’t. Those who can are paid for their time and expense.

Security at Harborside is also extensive.

Guards roam the parking lots, looking for signs of illegal drug trading, loitering and even loud music from cars.

Twenty-two cameras sweep the area and the watch is on 24 hours a day.

There is a metal detector at the entryway, and fingerprinting technology in a doorway leading from the public to private dispensary area. This door keeps records that DeAngelo can review for the past 30 days.

In three years, Harborside has had only minor problems, DeAngelo said. One was an attempted purse snatching that security personnel interrupted. The other was a domestic violence dispute.

The center collects $20 million in gross sales annually.

It uses money above its costs to provide a variety of extra services, such as a free seven-day-a-week holistic care clinic.

It also holds free “Grow Your Own Medicine” seminars every Sunday.

When the economic downturn hit Oakland, center officials approached the city about increasing their gross receipts tax from $1.20 per thousand to $18 per $1,000, DeAngelo said.

The new rate translates to $360,000 for the city from Harborside. It will go into effect the first of next year.

“I think that in the course of the three years we’ve been open, we’ve been successful in establishing (a) new model of excellence,” he said.

History of legal marijuana use

California voters passed Proposition 215 in 1996, allowing people to use marijuana for medical purposes. The Legislature followed with a revision to the Compassionate Use Act in 2003, requiring medical marijuana identification cards and setting limits on how much marijuana each patient can possess.

While the 2003 law doesn’t state outright that businesses are allowed to sell marijuana, it contains provisions regarding cooperatives and collectives. The difference is essentially that coops or collectives can’t make a profit. President Barack Obama’s administration eased concerns about prosecution under federal law when it announced it would no longer target dispensaries that follow state law.


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