(July 21) Well in advance of what is anticipated will be a major push statewide to legalize the purchasing and selling of marijuana for both medicinal and recreational use in 2016, efforts are under way in two of San Bernardino County’s most financially challenged cities to allow marijuana dispensaries to operate.
In both the county seat of San Bernardino and in Yucca Valley the concept of permitting medical marijuana clinics to operate there under a licensed arrangement with the cities themselves that will generate a special tax are being promoted.
In the case of San Bernardino, the sponsorship of the concept originates with no less of a high ranking personage than the city attorney. In Yucca Valley, the impetus is coming from an entrepreneur whose previous efforts in the same venue have been met with effective opposition.
In 1996 Proposition 215, an initiative which called for legalizing the possession and use of marijuana for medical purposes by licensed medical caregivers and patients with valid prescriptions, was passed by California’s voters with 55.6 percent of the vote. Though some jurisdictions in California facilitated the licensing of medical marijuana clinics, San Bernardino and nearly all of its cities have been far less accommodating of purveyors of the drug. Indeed, many municipalities have enacted ordinances practically preventing marijuana distributors conforming with the state law from setting up shop within their borders, have undertaken civil suits against those who succeeded in establishing operations, have cooperated with local law enforcement agencies in shuttering many of those establishments and, on occasion, partnered with federal agencies in the application of federal authority to shut down such operations, and arrest and convict operators. In contrast to California law, federal law maintains a strict prohition against marijuana even if used for medicinal purposes and the FBI and federal Drug Enforcement Agency and even the IRS have utilized various strategies from criminal raids and prosecutions to civil injunctions to seizing property leased for medical cannabis uses to hold the proliferation of medical marijuana clinics.
In 2013, a marijuana dispensary was function in Yucca Valley but in December the Yucca Valley Town Council voted to have it shut down. In response, a group calling itself Alliance for Safe Access formed with the goal of transforming Yucca Valley into a haven for medical marijuana users.
In February, Jason Elsasser opened the Yucca Valley Medical Marijuana Resource Group in Yucca Valley as part of an effort provide people consultations and recommendations for medical marijuana. Beginning in March, a retired doctor has been working out of the center, located at ????? Highway 62, providing diagnoses, recommendations and prescriptions to individuals suffering from a number of maladies which marijuana advocates believe can be remedied through the use of cannabis.
so andworking at the center has given 500 recommendations. That gave him the evidence he needed to take more action.
Elasser has now made the next move in his game plan. Utilizing data gathered from clients at the Yucca Valley Medical Marijuana Resource Group, on July 14 he and other members of Alliance for Safe Access formally submitted a petition for the creation of a town ordinance providing a licensing protocol for marijuana dispensaries in Yucca Valley. The paperwork on that petition was turned over to city clerk Lesly Copeland.
According to Elasser, the medical marijuana usage rates and patterns in Yucca Valley and its environs would justify the licensing of two medical marijuana clinics in town. The Yucca Valley Medical Marijuana Resource Group’s proposed ordinance envisions two such licensed establishments that would be subject to a ten percent city surcharge on its sales. The entirety of that surcharge would go to the city and be usable as a revenue into the Yucca Valley municipal general fund.
Elasser maintains such a move by the city makes sense all around. It would make what he maintains is a beneficial medical product available to a clientele who needs it and it would also shore up the town’s finances. A conservative estimate is that each clinic would generate $1 million in sales annually, providing the town with $200,000 it currently does not have.
Elasser’s calculation is that the town, which has historically been hostile to marijuana in anyt form, just might embrace the ordidnance. Two years ago, the town proposed Measure C, a sales tax initiative to provide revenue to the strapped governmental operations. That measure failed.
Upon Copeland’s acceptance of the petition, the town now had 15 days to create a summary statement of the proposed ordinance. The summary and petition will be returned to Elsasser and his crew, who will then have six months to gather valid signatures of 15 percent of Yucca Valleys’s voters. If that goal is achieved, the town council must place the initiative on the ballot or, in the alternative, use its own authority to implement an ordinance commensurate with what is contained in the petition.
Elasser cited the financial success Palm Spring has had with a similar system, which permits three dispensaries in its city limits. Those operations generate roughly $4.5 million per year.
The city of San Bernardino has traditionally been inhospitable to those seeking to market medical marijuana under the Proposition 215 rubric.
In the late 1990s and very early 2000s, a few entrepreneurs braved circumstance and tempted fate by opening clinics. In a few cases, those operations were able to sustain themselves or profit, at least for a time. Constantly, however, they were subject to city action, including police department and code enforcement raids in which arrests were made and the product on hand seized.
In 2007, the city council imposed a temporary moratorium on potshops altogether and followed that up with a more comprehensive moratorium. With then-city attorney James Penman, whose wife was a member of the school board, declaring a crusade against the proliferation of marijuana clinics, the city council passed four progressively more restrictive ordinances that so limited where and how the clinics could operate that they were effectively banned from the city. This was coupled by $1,000 per day fines that were leveled at any marijuana dispensing businesses that ran afoul of any of the regulations in the city code. This full court press, however, was not entirely effective as marijuana distribution businesses went to court, challenging the constitutionality of the city’s action. This stood the city off, and though it gave notice to the alleged offenders of the violations and the assessment of $1,000 per day fines, those penalties were not actually collected as the city feared a showdown over the constitutionality of its action. In 2013, however, the California Supreme Court in a unanimous decision ruled that Riverside had acted within the constitution when it sought to ban marijuana clinics by means of land use restrictions and extended the outzoning prerogative to other governmental entities in their battles to foreclose the operation of such clinics. This emboldened San Bernardino, which embarked on a series of raids against the few marijuana clinics that remained within its city limits.
Penman has since been replaced as city attorney by Gary Saenz. Saenz has so far mimicked his predecessor in the effort to pressure what he characterizes as “illegal medical marijuana dispensaries” to discontinue their operations. This has included raids aimed at crippling the operations themselves by the seizure of their wares and the arrest and citation of operators. He has also sought to dissuade the owners of the properties where the clinics are located – i.e., those who lease the premises to the clinic operators – by imposing on them fines that exceed the rent they receive, or the imposition of other onerous penalties such as liens that can result in loss of ownership of the buildings themselves.
Despite that tough approach, Saenz, who was himself a real estate agent with property listings in the city who as an attorney practiced almost solely in the arena of real estate law, this week gave indication that he is ready to live with a limited number of medical marijuana operations in the city of 211,000 population.
He said he was recommending that the city council form a subcommittee to look at the viability of allowing a select number of regulated marijuana dispensaries in San Bernardino. The council should seriously consider, Saenz said, “a plan which essentially acknowledges the futility and high cost of attempting to completely eradicate marijuana dispensaries with our current system, by which we will continue to spend hundreds of thousands and eventually millions but will never significantly achieve success. Instead, by conceding to California’s policy of allowing marijuana use for medical purposes, and permitting dispensaries that are highly regulated, we can move the distribution of medical marijuana from the black market to the regulated market.”
If the city can’t beat them, Saenz said of persevering clinic operators, it should join them in the spirit of controlling and benefiting from the public’s appetite for pharmaceutical cannabis. The use of injunctions, he said, have succeeded in many cases but have come at too high of a financial cost in a city that declared bankruptcy two years ago. “The injunction process is the most costly for the city to pursue, and therefore, can have little effect on the entire city unless we are willing to commit substantial resources in an extensive city-wide pursuit.” In this way, Saenz said, “We continue to expend valuable and limited police, code enforcement and attorney resources with frustratingly insignificant results.”
While he continued to characterized illegal marijuana clinics as “a public nuisance” and said he remains committed to standing united with the city council and the police department to ”effectively eliminate the operation of illegal medical marijuana dispensaries in this city” he persuaded the city council agreed to have its legislative review committee consider the licensing of regulated marijuana clinics and then deliver a report to the full council at its August 4 meeting.
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