With a moratorium on new medical marijuana dispensaries in unincorporated El Dorado County set to expire at the end of October, the county Planning Commission has called for an ordinance to allow and regulate the facilities.
The commission at its Aug. 22 meeting objected to a proposed ordinance amendment, initiated by the Board of Supervisors, that would ban all medical marijuana distribution facilities.
"After about four hours of listening and discussion, it was the commission's directive to allow the existing collectives that are in place today," said commission Chairman Dave Pratt. "In a second motion, we asked the board to give us a shot at coming up with rules for collectives."
Pratt suggested it is time for the county to start viewing medical marijuana dispensaries as tax-paying enterprises that can provide jobs and contribute to the local economy.
Peter Maurer, principal planner with the county's Development Services Department, said the Board of Supervisors adopted an urgency ordinance in November 2011 imposing a moratorium on new dispensaries and subsequently extended the moratorium for another year.
After a recent court case in California upheld a general prohibition of dispensaries by a local government, the board decided to initiate a permanent ordinance amendment.
An ordinance prohibiting all medical marijuana distribution facilities, however, would mean that three existing dispensaries – in Cameron Park, Shingle Springs and Diamond Springs – would have to close unless they could demonstrate that they were operating prior to 2004, when the county removed the word "dispensary" from its zoning code. The intent, Maurer said, was to make it clear that medical marijuana dispensaries were not permitted.
"There is a question whether the existing dispensaries are operating within the constraints of county code," he said.
Weighing in on the issue for the first time – the urgency ordinance required action only by the Board of Supervisors – the Planning Commission last month recommended amending the proposed ordinance to allow existing dispensaries to continue to operate.
But the commission also went a step further, recommending that the Board of Supervisors immediately initiate an amendment to the zoning code to allow new dispensaries and to set standards for their operation.
"We were in a spot where we had to make a decision that day," Pratt said.
Because the urgency ordinance expires Oct. 30, the board needs to adopt an ordinance at its Sept. 24 meeting.
"We need to have something in place so there's not a free-for-all (when the urgency ordinance expires)," Maurer said.
The Board of Supervisors has not been receptive to medical marijuana dispensaries. "The board made it clear in previous actions that it did not want to see them," Maurer said.
Pratt said he visited two of the three existing dispensaries prior to the Planning Commission meeting and was impressed with what he saw. "There's a lot more science involved than 10 years ago," he said. "It's not reefer madness."
Although they haven't achieved the quality control of a traditional pharmaceutical operation, the facilities he visited appear to be moving in that direction, Pratt said.
All together, the three dispensaries serve approximately 5,000 clients on a regular basis each month, he said. In providing marijuana in topical form or in food products, Pratt said, they offer alternatives for people who don't want to smoke.
Although county supervisors have consistently opposed allowing dispensaries in the unincorporated area, the Placerville City Council adopted ordinances in 2006 permitting dispensaries in its jurisdiction.
Before the city, too, imposed a moratorium in 2010, two dispensaries opened and closed at the same Main Street location. The City Council refused to renew the permit for the second one, Mountain Meds, in April 2009 because of what city officials characterized as shoddy bookkeeping that raised questions about the business's legitimacy.
When the 2010 moratorium was imposed, City Attorney John Driscoll cited a recent California Supreme Court decision eliminating restrictions on the amount of marijuana a qualified patient could possess, saying the ruling had created an impossible situation for police attempting to enforce operating requirements and restrictions on dispensaries.
In November 2011, the council adopted an ordinance prohibiting medical marijuana dispensaries within the city.
Pratt said operators of existing dispensaries told the Planning Commission they would welcome an ordinance setting standards for their operations, seeing county regulation as a way to help them become more legitimate and viable.