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Wednesday, Jun 26 2013 09:29 PM

City Council votes to ban medical marijuana dispensaries in Bakersfield

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    A pair of buds on a Wild Thailand marijuana plant are shown in this file photo.

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BY THEO DOUGLAS Californian staff writer tdouglas@bakersfield.com

The Bakersfield City Council on Wednesday approved an ordinance banning medical marijuana dispensaries within city limits, following testimony from three residents in favor of, and four residents against the ban.

The ordinance, which will take effect in approximately 30 days, is modeled after a similar example in Riverside, which recently was upheld in a decision by the California Supreme Court allowing cities to ban dispensaries.

City Attorney Ginny Gennaro has been adamant that Bakersfield's ordinance, which should be in place by late July, will not result in the overnight shuttering of dispensaries. Rather, it will prohibit their operation in all zones of the city -- from residential to commercial.

"It now becomes a zoning issue," Gennaro said in a conversation before the meeting. "That's why it's difficult for a lot of people to understand how the process works."

Actual enforcement of the ban will vary depending upon the situation, but investigations will be initiated by complaints, the city attorney said, and likely will involve both the city Code Enforcement Department, which investigates zoning violations; and the Police Department, which will determine whether a particular building actually houses a business where marijuana is being sold.

"Every case, whether you call it case or complaint, has to be looked at and judged, and a process undertaken that is unique to that case," Gennaro said. "It's not like some code enforcement complaint, where somebody says, 'This guy has a lot of junk in his yard,' and so, bingo, that starts the code enforcement process."

The ordinance makes closing dispensaries a civil matter, not a criminal one, unless crimes are found to have occurred at a dispensary. After investigating a dispensary with a complaint against it, Gennaro said the city then would have to take its case to civil court.

"I don't envision a ticket being issued," Gennaro said, noting that violators likely would receive a correction notice. "It's not going to go into the criminal courts. The bottom line is, once you get yourself into that type of business, what does the city want in this matter? It's the closure of the business."

City staff told the council that they have received 17 telephone calls against the marijuana ordinance. However, resident Marcie Davis applauded the city for banning dispensaries.

"I don't believe that all these 18-year-olds in Bakersfield have a need for medical marijuana," said Davis, who lives near a dispensary. "There's no accountability for these places. I see these places as just a stepping-stone for our kids who already are having such a problem with drugs."

Bakersfield attorney Philip Ganong was not convinced.

"What you're seeing is the typical 'Oh, save the children' plea," said Ganong, who said he drafted an ordinance for the city to consider three months ago, that would have regulated dispensaries instead of banning them. " 'Please save the children' can be better directed to responsible parenting, rather than shutting everybody down and making it hard for sick people and law-abiding people to obtain it." Others agreed.

"That lacks credibility," said Douglas McAfee, executive director of Bakersfield NORML, which works to reform marijuana legislation. "We have to keep this above the table. We have to have an open government. I do not want to return to the good old days of the good old boys."

Ward 6 Councilwoman Jacquie Sullivan said the city followed due process, and approved a good ordinance.

"We did honor democracy. It was suggested that we were not, because of closing them," Sullivan said after the meeting. "But I am certain that many more people are in favor of having them closed down. It is appropriate for us to make that decision."

The vote to approve the ordinance was 4 to 0 in favor, with Ward 4 Councilman Bob Smith and Ward 5 Councilman Harold Hanson absent, and newly installed Ward 1 Councilman Willie Rivera abstaining because he was not present for the original discussion of the ordinance.

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