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The County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously yesterday (March 16) to place a temporary moratorium on the approval of new medical marijuana dispensaries in unincorporated areas.

The issue packed the board's chambers with residents, most of whom came to speak in favor of the ban. Testimony lasted more than two hours. Large contingents of East County residents, particularly from Ramona and Julian, turned out: each community had gathered hundreds of signatures on petitions protesting the consideration of a dispensary approval nearby.

The county took up the issue after several citizens appeared at a February board meeting to protest the potential of marijuana sales. The board's vote enacted an "interim urgency ordinance" that will block any new storefronts from being approved or opening before April 27, by which time county staff expects to present options such as more restrictive zoning, stricter enforcement with higher fines, or an outright ban on dispensaries. Several cities within county limits, including Chula Vista, Imperial Beach, and Oceanside, have banned dispensaries since a 2013 state Supreme Court ruling allowed outright bans locally.

For years, medical marijuana activists have argued that existing zoning regulations are already too restrictive, creating a "de facto ban" on dispensaries. Currently, dispensaries are restricted to industrially zoned locations at least 1000 feet away from one another and 1000 feet from "sensitive use" facilities such as schools or parks, which would allow for an estimated maximum of 18 to 23 dispensaries throughout the county.

Currently only two dispensaries, one in Ramona and another in unincorporated El Cajon, operate legally outside the city of San Diego, the only local municipality that has regulations in place allowing for their placement. Eight more have either been issued building permits or are undergoing the permitting process — these facilities will not be able to open while the 45-day moratorium is in place.

Kira Hurtado, representing ShowGrow, Ramona's existing dispensary, presented maps and a facility overview to support the collective's argument that it is appropriately placed. She also stressed that over 30 full-time jobs would be created if a planned cultivation area were allowed to open in the coming months.

"These aren't seasonal jobs. These are highly skilled chemists, agriculturists, and others working to create medicine," said Hurtado, who described the eventually approved moratorium as potentially "devastating" to ShowGrow.

Opponents to the presence of medical marijuana in their communities were unswayed.

"A ban eliminates a marijuana storefront. And like any storefront, a retail setting is a normalization of the product being sold," argued Judy Strang, noting her belief that the legalization of some dispensaries would lead to a greater number of unpermitted locations opening their doors, specifically citing "ads for pot shops" in the Reader as a justification for concern.

Before taking a 4-0 vote to enact the temporary ban (supervisor Ron Roberts was absent and did not submit an opinion), the board was split, with supervisors Dave Roberts and Greg Cox indicating they'd like to give the issue further consideration.

Dianne Jacobs and Bill Horn, however, were ready to vote immediately on a permanent ban, with Horn calling the entire premise of Proposition 215 (the 1996 law that legalized medical marijuana) "misguided" before recommending that "if you want marijuana, go to the city of San Diego."

The issue will be heard again in the coming weeks.

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