Battle for Medicinal Marijuana Access is Far From Over

By Esther Rubio-Sheffrey

Last April, despite large opposition, even from its own appointed Medical Marijuana Task Force, the city council voted 5-2 in favor of two zoning ordinances that would have effectively banned safe access to medicinal marijuana throughout San Diego. Unwilling to accept defeat, patients, co-op and collective managers, and medicinal marijuana supporters came together and struck a democratic blow against the city’s legal and law enforcement establishments. Through a signature gathering effort, they forced the council to either repeal the ordinances or spend over $800,000 to allow San Diegans to vote on the issue in this year’s June primary.

Because of July’s repeal victory, more than 150 co-ops and collectives remained opened throughout the summer; however, the fall and winter brought with it the city’s wrath. Aided by the federal government, the city’s successful efforts have led to the closure of most co-ops and collectives, critically hindering safe access for thousands. Today, only approximately 27 co-ops and collectives remain open throughout San Diego, four of which the DEA raided since the start of the year. The two organizations responsible for the ordinance repeal efforts – the Patient Care Association of California (PCA) and the Citizens for Patients Rights (CPR) – have not, however, been sitting idly by.

The city officials would vigorously rebound almost immediately after the ordinance’s repeal was evident. Most of the councilmembers, except District 8’s David Alvarez, spoke with a tone of contempt at the marijuana community’s audacity to challenge what they deemed to be fair zoning laws. District 3’s Todd Gloria warned of no foreseeable compromises. City Attorney Jan Goldsmith interpreted the repeal of the ordinances to mean that all co-ops and collectives, in one way or another, were operating illegally. By year’s end, Goldsmith successfully sued 12 co-ops and collectives for violating zoning laws, forcing them to close their doors. U.S. Attorney, Laura Duffy, took it one step further in October when she began notifying all property owners leasing to co-ops and collectives that if the owners took no action to stop the “sale and/or distribution of marijuana,” the federal law regulations would allow for the seizure of their properties.

The PCA, CPR, along with the local and state chapters of Americans for Safe Access (ASA), and dozens of medicinal marijuana supporters have protested each action and have initiated several lawsuits against the city. More importantly, however, was the behind-the-scenes action that the PCA was setting in motion. Invigorated by the public support received throughout the ordinance repeal efforts, the PCA and CPR unveiled a ballot initiative on Dec. 19th that will allow voters in the upcoming November election to decide the fate of safe access.

The PCA’s co-op members came together with attorneys to carefully construct a 17-page ordinance that, above all else, regulates co-ops and their operating practices and levies a supplemental sales tax of 1% – 2.5% for the city to use at its discretion. For the initiative to qualify for November’s ballot, the PCA and CPR volunteers have six months as of January to gather 60,258 valid registered voter signatures. It is time to join the fight.

The Compassionate Use Dispensary Restriction and Taxation Ordinance
There are two proponents behind the Compassionate Use Dispensary Restriction and Taxation Ordinance (CUDRT) – Ruth and Randy Walls. Ruth is a 79-year-old retired registered nurse and her son’s primary caregiver. Randy, 53, has been battling HIV/AIDS since 1990.

AIDS is not only robbing Randy of his life, it is also severely depleting his immune system, making him susceptible to various other ailments. His condition began to worsen three years ago, reducing him almost to a skeleton and taking its toll on both Ruth and Randy. “The combination of over 30 prescription medications he was on made him constantly exhausted, severely nauseated, and caused personality changes that made him short tempered, depressed, and flat-out mean,” Ruth wrote in her statement.

His illness soon brought upon depression, and Randy turned to alcohol. “I was hopelessly lost. I became a relentless alcoholic. I was resigned that something was going to kill me. If the disease itself wasn’t going to, then the alcohol or massive doses of pharmaceuticals would. It was just a question of when,” Randy said in his statement. Ruth was also concerned about the addictiveness of many of the medications, such as Vicodine, Oxycontin, Percocet, and Valium, that Randy was taking.

Although she had never condoned any recreational drug use, it was clear to her and a doctor she had reached out to that the medications were also a part of the problem. Once Randy became a compassionate user at the recommendation of his doctor, both he and his mom noticed immediate positive benefits. They also credit marijuana for restoring a sense of normalcy to his life. Like many patients in situations like Randy’s, they are both fearful of the decline in access.

Rather than see her son return to addictive medications or stand by and watch him suffer, Ruth said, “I will go out and find an illegal drug dealer to try and get my son medical marijuana. Not only will this expose me to participating in a criminal transaction, a great risk in itself, but it will expose me to the possibility of arrest. It will also expose my son to medical marijuana from someone I don’t know and may not be able to trust.”

PCA representative Cynara Velazquez says that is exactly the type of situation many San Diegans are finding themselves forced into, and that is why they and other concerned citizens are trying to avoid with the passage of CUDRT. “The PCA is confident that we will prevail in enacting fair regulations that meet the needs of patients, caregivers, and the community at large through the direct democracy process,” Velazquez said.

Velazquez discussed the details of CUDRT with NUG and said that the PCA’s membership body began working on the initiative in September. “We attempted to meet with all of the council members and their representatives to discuss their concerns,” she said. “Every [part of the initiative] was achieved by a group vote and yes, there were concerns over things like taxes and security requirements, but we took the consensus in the end.”

The result of the PCA’s efforts is a well thought-out measure that keeps money away from illegal drug dealers and drug cartels and allows patients like Randy to have access to marijuana. CUDRT is set up to pay for itself through a cost recovery measure and makes use of existing city departments in order to regulate the co-ops. There are over a dozen operational regulations that those who are seeking a Compassionate Use Dispensary permit must abide by, which include:

A background check through the California Department of Justice for all dispensary directors to ensure no director has had a serious felony conviction.
No cannabis may be visible from a dispensary’s exterior, including any cultivated or dried cannabis.
Dispensaries may only operate within the hours of 7am to 12am.
Security personnel must be on site during all hours of operation, in addition to security cameras, an alarm system, and interior and exterior lighting for safety.
All exterior signs must conform to existing regulations

Additionally, no dispensary shall allow medical evaluations, consumption of medical cannabis, or the sale of alcoholic beverages on its premises. Location wise, dispensaries may not operate in residential, open space, industrial heavy, or agriculture base zones, and they must maintain a 600-foot radius from all accredited K-12 grade schools and playgrounds.

Prior to applying for a permit from the city’s developmental services, co-ops and collectives must first obtain approval from the Compassionate Use Dispensary Accreditation Board (CUDAB), a process Velazquez describes as similar to the model used by certain stores to obtain organic certification, which includes yearly renewals and random inspections to make sure regulations are being followed.

The CUDAB will consist of 10 members all committed to serving a five-year term. The existing co-op or collective will select five members through a process that will be made public once it is determined; and the city council shall select the other five, which must include at least two San Diego residents who are qualified patients.

To appease community concerns regarding dispensaries taking over neighborhoods, a co-op or collective must have been in operation for at least 18 months prior to its application date; and once the accreditation process is complete, no new dispensaries will be allowed for a five-year period. “By allowing only existing organizations, we set aside concerns that some would set up dummy organizations with the intent of taking advantage of this law,” Velazquez said. “We also want to avoid a situation like Oakland where there are only three co-ops that are very rich and powerful and represent just the interest of a few. We want to have a broad range of collectives.”

By putting the fate of medicinal marijuana access in the hands of the voters, advocates also avoid further delays imposed by the city council or any law enforcement entity. CUDRT outlines specific deadlines for the city and CUDAB, during which time they must quickly take care of their share of responsibilities and policies so that the co-op or collective’s accreditation process is completed within 120 days of the initiative becoming law. “This is the standard procedure and we didn’t want to give [the city] a chance to delay,” Velazquez said. “If they chose to drag out the process, similar to what the county did with the medical marijuana card process, the city opens the door for lawsuits.”

The 2.5% sales tax imposed on every medical cannabis transaction will also provide necessary revenues for San Diego’s general fund, which is currently underfunded. If the state enacts a statewide sales tax, then CUDRT’s tax would be reduced to 1% but still provide desperately needed revenues.  . For more details on the proposed regulations, see the full article online at

The PCA has done their share of research monitoring what has worked and what has not for other cities in California; and if approved by voters in November, CUDRT may set a precedent for others to follow. More importantly, though, CUDRT will protect all qualified patients, primary caregivers, and dispensary officials in compliance with the ordinance from arrest, prosecution, and seizure of cannabis if they come into contact with law enforcement. It will also require that the police department update its training materials and procedures.

The vision may only be realized, however, if volunteers gather the necessary signatures to qualify the initiative for the November ballot.

Help Initiate Safe Access
First and foremost, if you are not a registered voter, change that ASAP! Registration forms are available at all libraries and post offices. You may sign CUDRT petitions at most co-ops as well as at dozens of events throughout the city, including neighborhood farmers markets. If you are unable to vote due to marijuana-related charges or similar judgments, you can help by volunteering. Contact CPR directly at for additional information.

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