Local Politics

Saturday, Aug 03 2013 05:00 PM

City gears up to enforce dispensary ban

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BY THEO DOUGLAS Californian staff writer tdouglas@bakersfield.com

Enforcement is on the way.

That's the message from city officials, who will meet Wednesday to discuss how a task force could target the estimated 24 medical marijuana dispensaries in Bakersfield.

Behind it all, of course, is the new ordinance banning dispensaries within city limits.

The Bakersfield City Council approved the ordinance June 26. It took effect Aug. 1, and will be enforced despite pending litigation, City Attorney Ginny Gennaro said, confirming that she will sit down next week with members of the police and code enforcement departments to talk about creating a task force.

There's no word yet on who could be in the special force.

"My goal, as I said before, is to figure out where the medical marijuana facilities are, who they are, where they exist. Then, I think we need to go through and figure out, of the ones on the list, which ones have received the most calls for service," Gennaro said. "And then I think we need to decide where we go from here."

Police Chief Greg Williamson said the city's first step may be sending each dispensary a letter informing its owners or operators that their business now is prohibited by the ordinance.

"Parallel it to how we have handled the homeless situation down in the riverbed. I hate to use the 'F-word' -- fair -- but we want to have an amicable resolution to the situation," Williamson said. "I think we'll get voluntary compliance, just from the initial letters, from some of them."

"My gut tells me that we really at this point don't want to give out a 'cease and desist' letter, right away -- this is more of an educational letter, 'This is what you need to do,'" Gennaro said. "Then, depending on what responses we get, ranging from a phone call to 'Go pound sand,' we'll move forward."

The city wants dispensaries to leave Bakersfield, whether they do so willingly or not. Gennaro said she is prepared to build cases against those that remain, and prosecute them in civil court. Dispensaries with the most complaints or calls for police service could face investigation first.

Dispensary employees indicated to The Californian that a strongly worded letter may not achieve the desired effect.

"We're just going to continue until they come and say you have to move, until there's legitimate complaints filed against us," said Sean Gallagher, a volunteer at medical marijuana cooperative American Green Farmers in central Bakersfield.

Like American Green Farmers, which Gallagher said holds food and coat drives around the holidays, employees of other dispensaries said they try hard to be good neighbors.

Representatives of some dispensaries said they only sell to people 21 and older, as opposed to those that require clients be only 18. Some hire professional laboratories to test their products for pesticides, and avoid questionable business practices such as choosing one day a week when state-issued medical marijuana cards are not required.

"We don't run it like a party house, and I think that's why we have the patient base that we do," said Liz Clarke, manager of Golden State Cooperative. "We test all of our products. Our patients know exactly what they're getting and that's how I think we go beyond" California Department of Justice guidelines.

Following the 1996 passage of the Compassionate Use Act, which decriminalized usage and cultivation of medical marijuana by certain patients and their caregivers, the California DOJ issued, and continues to update, an 11-page bulletin on the "security and non-diversion of marijuana grown for medical use."

However, marijuana, medical or otherwise, continues to be forbidden by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, which classifies it as a Schedule 1 drug with no "accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse." Federal authorities regularly target marijuana grows and dispensaries in Bakersfield and Kern County.

After several years of varied enforcement by the Kern County Sheriff's Office, county voters in June approved Measure G, severely restricting where dispensaries may operate in unincorporated areas -- confining them largely to industrial areas.

Measure G is being enforced while simultaneously being litigated on charges that its implementation violates the California Environmental Quality Act, and that the county has no authority to ban dispensaries. On Friday, Kern County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Twisselman II will conduct a hearing in the CEQA portion of the case.

Bakersfield could face its own CEQA lawsuit on Monday, from a group calling itself Concerned Citizens of Bakersfield, saying the city did not conduct an environmental review before approving its medical marijuana ordinance.

Channel Law Group of Long Beach, which represents Concerned Citizens, has until 5 p.m. Monday to serve the City Clerk's office with the lawsuit, filed "under the provision of" CEQA.

The city's ban may be able to withstand a legal challenge, but those in the industry said it sends the wrong message to a community that will have to go elsewhere for its medical marijuana -- and possibly even break the law to obtain it -- if city dispensaries are closed.

"It doesn't solve the problem because the streets have been around a lot longer than we have," Gallagher said.

Medical marijuana attorney Phil Ganong -- who helped opponents challenge Kern County's medical marijuana ordinance by a referendum and lawsuits -- has avoided involvement in Bakersfield's recent failed referendum and pending lawsuit.

But Ganong said recently that the California DOJ guidelines aren't enough, and local regulation is needed -- just not this ordinance.

"I would prefer that we have a regulatory ordinance that gives everybody a fair shot to comply and have their operations inside the law," Ganong said. "I don't think this is the right way to do it."

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