Drugs

Medical Pot Political Turmoil As San Jose Is Roiled by Attempts to Restrict Sale and Use

A proposed ordinance would seriously restrict marijuana dispensaries in San Jose.

A woman examines cannabis products at a dispensary.
Photo Credit: Sonya Yruel/Drug Policy Alliance

Walk around in downtown San Jose and chances are good that you’ll catch a potent whiff of pot. The city is the largest in the San Francisco Bay Area and among California’s most marijuana-friendly hubs. Nearly 80  medical marijuana dispensaries—which are legal at the state level—dot its streets. Those dispensaries serve thousands of patients who are dealing with everything from cancer to chronic pain. They rely on the city’s dispensaries to provide an alternative medication, which many say works better (and with less side effects) than pharmaceutical drugs.

But negative stigmas and stereotypes about marijuana persist despite stacks of proof to the contrary, and it remains illegal in  all forms at the federal level. So, even in San Jose where it is a well-established industry, medical marijuana is vulnerable. This week, citing outdated, unfounded fears about crime, odor, and child safety—as well as a potential federal backlash—San Jose’s city council was expected to pass a sweeping regulatory ordinance that could shut down the bulk of the city’s dispensaries.

For years the city has been a turbulent environment for dispensaries due to local outcry, and the city is split between opponents and proponents of medical marijuana access.

Fred Drier of Marijuana Business Daily writes, "San Jose City Council members and even the mayor have repeatedly threatened dispensaries, but law enforcement typically only cracks down on businesses that generate complaints. Still, many dispensary owners believe the ax could fall at any time and the city could seek to aggressively close all shops.”

The proposed regulations are similar to those of a 2011 ordiance that passed, but was overturned a year later by referendum.

San Jose’s mayor, Chuck Reed, introduced the proposal.

“We need strong and effective medical marijuana regulations that keep marijuana out of the hands of children, protect our neighborhoods and businesses from drug cartels, gangs and other criminals using medical marijuana as a cover for their illegal activity and comply with the guidelines established by the federal government," he told the local news outlet San Jose Inside. "[We] also [need to ensure] that seriously ill patients have access to the medication they need.”

As it’s written, the ordinance would zone out the majority of dispensaries. It would create a “closed loop” system of cultivation requiring them to grow the herb on-site, and since most of the city’s dispensaries purchase their marijuana from collective grows off-site, and indoor cultivation is extremely expensive, this could put many out of business. The ordinance would also enact 1,000-foot buffer zones between dispensaries and schools, homes, rehab clinics, community centers and any other areas deemed “sensitive use” locations.  It would bar convicted criminals from working for collectives—which poses egregious civil rights infringements on ex-felons, and it would limit business hours from 9 in the morning to 9 at night.

The ordinance would also prohibit collectives from using cash. In theory this is so that all transactions could be tracked, but, since banks and credit card companies don’t typically do business with marijuana collectives due to federal regulations, in practice it would kill dispensaries.

The ordinance would effectively end medical marijuana access for most, if not all, of the city’s patients.

Those patients are allowed access under California’s Compassionate Use Act (Prop. 215), which voters passed in 1996. The act also protects patient collectives, which grow the herb, and cooperative dispensaries, which distribute it to people who might not otherwise have access.

If the ordinance passes, California will lose one of its last remaining medical marijuana meccas—and patients are refusing to let that happen without a fight.

James Anthony, a cannabis lobbyist who attended the meeting, told San Jose Inside, "We do need regulation—we want it, but what they’re trying to pass—it’s not workable. It’s an effective ban.”

The council was set to vote on the proposed ordinance during their meeting on May 20, but following three hours of public testimony and discussion, the vote was delayed until June 3.

According to the local news outlet San Jose Inside, proponents of the proposed ordinance outnumbered opponents in the meeting.

"Neighbors spoke about loud, unruly dispensary patrons smoking in parking lots and scaring away customers of nearby businesses," the article notes. "People against the proposal said those examples are the exception, not the rule. Most collectives are respectful, ask their clients to leave and maintain a good relationship with the landlord and neighbors, some speakers argued."

However, the arguments of those opposing the ordinance appear to have caused several council members to pause. 

Anthony is collecting signatures for a ballot initiative that would regulate and protect collectives before the city bans them. Sensible San Jose, a coalition of patients, collectives, and  citizens is heading up the initiative effort. Some of the regulations in the initiative match those of the city's proposal, and councilmembers Don RochaAsh Kalra and Madison Nguyen asked the city produce a report about the initiative either next week or in a June meeting.

Backlash

The national outlook on marijuana is shifting. More than half of Americans think it should be legalized and regulated the way it is in Colorado and Washington, and 20 states (as well as Washington D.C.) have followed in California’s footsteps by passing medical marijuana laws. Even the president has acknowledged the blatant truth that marijuana is much safer than alcohol, and the majority of american doctors think it should be legalized and studied. Countless cancer patients, epileptic children and suicidal veterans swear that medical marijuana saved their lives, and the national news media is reporting their stories.

Unfortunately, San Jose is just the latest in a slew of cities and counties that have seen a backlash to the increasing acceptance of marijuana.  Following a 2013 state Supreme Court ruling that acknowledged the right of cities and counties to ban dispensaries, a battle is raging. Local California governments are cracking down on dispensaries, and using the ruling as an excuse to also prohibit medical marijuana cultivation for personal use.

As David Downs put it in a recent AlterNet article:

“[T]hese bans strike at the very core of voter-approved Proposition 215. … [D]espite that groundbreaking law, the vast majority of Californians now live in cities and counties that have enacted bans on medical pot dispensaries, including much of Alameda and Contra Costa counties. In addition, more than a dozen cities and counties — including Concord and Martinez — have banned all outdoor growing, and a few cities are prohibiting all cultivation. Legal challenges to the more sweeping bans are pending, but the pain is immediate.”

Now, patients are stuck commuting long distances and resorting to unlicensed, or flat-out illegal, methods of access. As Lanny Swerdlow, a registered nurse in Riverside (a Southern California city that is “in the heart of ban country”) said to Downs, “People are definitely being hurt.  We are going backward."

April M. Short writes and edits for AlterNet. She previously worked as AlterNet's drugs and health editor.