April 24 2013 09:22 AM

Marti Emerald leads the way down a conservative path

A patient decries Tuesday’s raid.
Photo by David Rolland

Man, talk about getting dissed. For all the effort San Diego Mayor Bob Filner put into proposing a new way to make storefront medical-marijuana dispensaries legal, and after more than three hours of public testimony on Monday, the City Council essentially ignored Filner's proposal and reverted to a plan that failed two years ago. Led by Councilmember Marti Emerald, a Democrat, the council told the City Attorney's office to bring back an ordinance that the council passed—and then rescinded—in 2011, so that it can be used as the template for another try.

But here's the head-scratcher: The 2011 ordinance was rescinded because advocates for medical marijuana, who thought the proposal made it too hard for many people to get access to the herb, collected enough signatures to put a repeal measure on the ballot, and the council decided to give up rather than pay for an election. Not only is the council going back to that failed effort; it sounds like the council's planning to make it even more restrictive this time.

What's going on here? Do council members believe the advocates regret their repeal effort so much that they'll accept whatever the City Council passes, even if it's worse than the last one? Do they not care if the advocates collect signatures again? If that happens, is the council prepared to just throw up its hands and move on to the next issue?

City Council President Todd Gloria, who on Monday appeared perplexed and disappointed by his colleague's direction, has spoken for the entire council in saying that it fully supports the notion of marijuana as medicine. Indeed, several members echoed that sentiment, with Councilmember Scott Sherman, a Republican, even talking sincerely about someone close to him who benefited from marijuana. However, the majority of the council clearly wants to make it difficult for people to get at this medicine.

For example, the 2011 ordinance created a 600-foot buffer between marijuana dispensaries and some other places, mostly where children gather. And it banned people with violent felonies on their records from running dispensaries. There was talk Monday of banning people with any felonies in their past from running dispensaries. And there was support for lengthening the buffer zone to 1,000 feet and adding to the list of places that would require buffers.  But they didn't stop there—Emerald also wants the council to compel Filner to enforce the current de facto ban on dispensaries by telling his code-compliance staff to send complaints to the City Attorney's office, the first step toward shuttering dispensaries.

The concern among advocates in 2011—and CityBeat agreed—was that the ordinance allowed only for dispensaries in the city's far-flung industrial zones, making it difficult for sick people to get to them. They must be allowed in commercial zones where public transit is plentiful.

Presumably, the majority of the City Council is getting a lot of blowback from constituents who aren't convinced that dispensaries, by and large, are truly motivated by compassion for sick folks. Presumably, there's too much fear that the prevailing motive is profit. It's striking how much of the council's rhetoric is weighted toward protecting children from the scourge of marijuana; it verges on hysterical. Frankly, the council—and the community at large—should be far more worried about bad parenting than access to marijuana.

The one positive development on Monday was Emerald's request for a study into whether the resurrected ordinance's restrictive buffers would create a de facto ban on dispensaries. We'd like to see that, too.

Gloria told us Tuesday morning that he's hoping for this scenario: A new law allows for a few dispensaries, which act like little angels, setting the stage for relaxed zoning restrictions after it becomes clear that more are needed closer to where people live, shop and run errands. Those are our words, not his, but that was his point.

Medical-marijuana advocate Ken Cole, whose Downtown dispensary was (coincidentally?) raided by federal agents and sheriff's deputies on Tuesday, told CityBeat that he and others felt "ambushed" by the City Council this week, but they'll regroup, request meetings with lawmakers and try to get the best possible ordinance.

Marijuana policy is traveling closely behind gay marriage on the path toward widespread acceptance. It would be nice if the City Council would get out in front and be leaders rather than followers.

What do you think? Write to editor@sdcitybeat.com.


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