After hours of public testimony and discussion, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted on Wednesday (April 27) to freeze the status of several proposed or approved medical marijuana dispensaries, potentially for as long as another year.
Last month, supervisors implemented a 45-day emergency moratorium on the approval or opening of any new dispensaries within the county's unincorporated regions. The emergency status was declared primarily based on public testimony from medical marijuana opponents and reports from police advocacy groups in California and Colorado, where recreational use of marijuana is legal.
This week, cannabis supporters were the ones who showed up in force, outnumbering opponents by a two-to-one margin, comparable to the amount by which they were in the majority at the March meeting where the ban was implemented.
One point of contention for those favoring a continued moratorium or outright ban on medical marijuana was that existing county rules, which cannabis backers have criticized for being overly restrictive, create a situation where only a few sections of land are legally viable; this leads to a proliferation of applications to operate dispensaries in the handful of appropriately zoned areas.
"When you consider the real need for marijuana dispensaries, Ramona can't support even one but we're scheduled to have six," said Jim Piva, chair of the Ramona Community Planning Group, stressing a need for "parity" in the distribution of pot shops throughout the county.
"Between the City of San Diego and what exists in the county, we're already saturated [with licensed dispensaries] and the results are negatively impacting our communities," Peggy Walker said of the ten licensed dispensaries within city limits and two that opened before the county implemented its moratorium.
"We don't want a San Diego that’s saturated by marijuana and its nefarious outcomes," Walker continued, echoing a theme of other moratorium supporters that zoning laws weren't the problem so much as the existence of dispensaries or cannabis in general.
"The country of the United States right now is normalizing marijuana use," countered Michael Cindrich, an attorney representing clients in the process of developing dispensaries according to existing county law. "I don't see dispensaries or our local laws doing that; it's the national media, laws in other states are doing that right now."
Cindrich noted that there are "dozens upon dozens of people who have spent time and resources in reliance" upon existing county law, and that those currently in the permitting process should be allowed to have their applications processed.
"If someone is in escrow on a property now, they can't wait another 45 days, ten months, a year to make a decision," Cindrich continued. "The decision has already been made, which leads to another decision — do they spend more money to purchase a property? If the county then decides to ban [marijuana], they're out a lot of money, which will likely lead to litigation. But if they stop now, and decide not to proceed, then they're already out any money that's been spent. There needs to be some sort of interim decision so these people don't have to wait months or years for a decision from the county."
In addition to the county's two operating dispensaries, four more have been approved but have not received building permits; another four have applications in process. Both of the existing dispensaries have plans to add on-site marijuana cultivation to their operations — facilities for Outliers Collective in El Cajon are nearly complete while those for ShowGrow in Ramona are further behind.
"Most of the supervisors on this board are the very same ones who approved the original ordinance. You're the ones who made the rules," reminded Lincoln Fish, head of the parent company for Outliers and another proposed El Cajon dispensary. "We've played by them, spending millions just to be in compliance with the playbook you've put forth. Now we're losing $60,000 a month just on carrying costs for real estate we're unable to use, not to mention the loss of revenue.
"The groups here today have started or are on the verge of creating solid businesses — we create jobs, pay taxes. And now you're going to say to them, 'Just kidding, what we did back then really didn't mean anything’? While you've created solutions like this moratorium, what you haven't defined is a problem, because no one can point to a real one."
Board discussion of the matter was contentious, particularly when it became apparent that three of the boardmembers, as chair Ron Roberts pointed out, were fundamentally opposed to an outright ban favored by supervisors Bill Horn and Dianne Jacob. Both existing facilities and most of those proposed are within Jacob's district, which covers a large swath of East County.
"This board is not denying through the moratorium that we've put in place, access to medical marijuana. I just want to make that clear," Jacob said. "Right now we have over a dozen [facilities] providing access to medical marijuana.
"Nothing really has changed: it's kind of like hitting the pause button, a time-out to give staff enough time to take a look at [existing law]."
Supervisor Dave Roberts was most forward in his hesitancy to support an extended moratorium.
"I don't know of an instance where we've changed land-use rules when people are at the goal line. And that's what really bugs me," Roberts opined to applause from the audience. "This isn't a conversation about marijuana — that happens elsewhere — this is a conversation about land use. And the more I've thought about this, the more concerned I am.
"Some of the speakers [supporting the moratorium] have said we're 'saturated.' I'm sitting here thinking that if two [dispensaries] is saturation, just think of how oversaturated we are with other stores on every street corner. Twelve dispensaries for 3.3 million people doesn't seem like saturation to me."
Ultimately, boardmembers voted 5-0 to extend the moratorium for another ten and a half months so they could continue studying the issue; after that, the option exists to extend it for another year, through March 2018.
One of the options that's off the table, however, is an outright ban on medical marijuana in the county: at the behest of Ron Roberts, county staff are looking at other options, including increased enforcement of existing laws and further tightening in the zoning restrictions that may result in a de facto ban on new facilities opening.
The existing applications, it appears, will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis to determine whether potential owners have an unspecified "vested interest" through their cash outlay to date to justify continuing to process the permit requests.
(corrected 4/30, 7:25 a.m.) An earlier version of the story misattributed the favoring of an outright ban to county supervisor Greg Cox; he has never taken that position. Apologies to Mr. Cox.