The Tribune’s recent editorial posed a fair and useful question: How should this county respond to the issue of medical marijuana? The editorial asks whether the Board of Supervisors gives proposed medical marijuana dispensaries fair consideration (“Board should give plans for pot clinics a fair review,” Aug. 29).
Many conversations I’ve had on that topic have quickly veered to wider and more complex questions about the regulation of marijuana in general. Some reflection on these issues is a timely exercise, especially as voters will consider a November ballot measure (Proposition 19) that could legalize personal marijuana use.
The current legal framework for considering medical marijuana is complicated, to say the least. Federal law makes any marijuana possession and use illegal. Medical possession and use was legalized in California by ballot initiative (Proposition 215) in 1996 and further addressed by legislation (SB 420) in 2003. The county adopted land-use ordinance standards for locating marijuana dispensaries in 2007.
As required by SB 420, the state attorney general developed guidelines in 2008 to distinguish legal medical use from illegal recreational use. While these guidelines are helpful on many issues, they are not statutes. So even with all this legal and legislative effort, there are still judgment calls that local governments have to wrestle with, especially when they consider dispensaries.
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I believe the Board of Supervisors has been fair-minded in considering the two dispensary proposals that have come before it in the last three years. My own approach has been to check carefully that the applicant meets all of the attorney general’s guidelines and our land-use ordinance standards. Each project had a variety of issues, but both came up short to me because they could not show clearly that they were a properly organized business entity (nonprofit collective or cooperative), as required by the guidelines.
Yes, the bar is high, but I believe fair, given the legal complexity. I support the medical use of marijuana and worked as a planning commissioner to craft the land-use standards for dispensaries.
Our struggle with medical marijuana is just part of a larger question of drug policy in this state and nation. More and more voices are calling for the outright legalization of marijuana — I believe with good reason.
Most obviously, prohibition has failed, as it did with alcohol. Huge sums have been spent on interdiction, suppression and incarceration, yet marijuana use remains widespread. Under prohibition, the widespread demand is supplied by organized criminals, fueling violence both locally and afar — the same result as for alcohol in the 1930s.
A more rational drug policy would legalize and tax marijuana sales and apply some of that revenue to education and treatment. This approach is receiving support from a wide spectrum of political thinkers:
from those who seek to reduce government intervention in our lives, to those who see a potential new revenue source and a chance to save tax dollars and to those who believe our response to drug use should be counseling rather than jail time. Interestingly, I see this support from supervisor colleagues of every political stripe, all over the state.
To make progress on this, we will need thoughtful and constructive discussion. I agree with The Tribune that we need to resist the old scare tactic of painting marijuana users as libertine criminals. We need our law enforcement officials to give us a balanced reading of legitimate studies on crimes and motor vehicle accidents associated with marijuana.
We also need a Legislature and governor who will lead on this issue (seemingly a long shot, given the current dysfunction in Sacramento) because we need to come together as a state and promote change in Washington, D.C., as well.
In short, we need to have an adult conversation about marijuana use. Especially at the local level, we should consider the real consequences of legalizing, or not legalizing, and move to a more rational and effective approach.
We will be asked to address this challenging problem through a ballot initiative in November. Proposition 19 is well-intentioned, but I’m concerned it may not provide a workable solution. Our Board of Supervisors will be discussing this measure (and others) on Tuesday.
I imagine we’ll be talking about marijuana regulation for a while yet. It’s an emotional issue for many, but I hope county residents will approach it with an engaged and open mind. I look forward to the conversation.
Bruce Gibson is the 2nd District county supervisor.