Orange County pot dispensaries exist in gray zone

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The Buddha and bamboo shoots are gone.

In their place is an empty home — except for the metal detector — that until recently was the site of one of half a dozen marijuana dispensaries that opened up in the last year in tiny Sunset Beach.

The dispensary, West County Patient Collective Assn., packed up and left this summer, saying it had been strung along by the county in getting a conditional use permit to sell medicinal marijuana. The collective’s volunteers saw the case as one of selective discrimination, but residents and officials viewed the association as an example of unwelcome businesses taking advantage of a lack of laws governing marijuana dispensaries in unincorporated areas of Orange County.

John Griggs, who headed the collective, said he had believed it would be welcome in Sunset Beach, a coastal enclave adjacent to Huntington Beach.

“Because it’s unincorporated and the county had nothing on their books and it gave us a legal way to open up,” he said.

On Tuesday, the Orange County Board of Supervisors rejected a temporary moratorium on permits for marijuana collectives or cooperatives in unincorporated areas. The ban will be reconsidered in November, but not until after the state election, in which California voters will decide whether to legalize the nonmedical use and possession of marijuana.

Supervisor Janet Nguyen said residents of Midway City, a small unincorporated community surrounded by Westminster, have also noticed dispensaries opening up, some near schools.

Many of the county’s 34 cities have restricted such operations, leading collectives to look to the relatively small amount of unincorporated territory.

“We do face this issue in our small areas, and we don’t know about it until there are complaints,” she said at Tuesday’s board meeting.

The moratorium, billed as urgent, was intended to give the county time to assess what the consequences will be if Proposition 19 passes. Approval of the initiative could require the county to reassess what little regulation is currently in place.

Dispensaries aren’t explicitly allowed or forbidden under county code, but are required to get use permits because they are seen as having moderate to high potential for adverse effects on the surrounding community, according to a memorandum sent out by the county chief executive’s office in July.

Currently there are 11 non-permitted marijuana storefronts in unincorporated areas, according to the county. One dispensary is applying for a permit from the planning department.

Dispensaries in the county’s cities are subject to local laws, but those in unincorporated areas seem to have existed in regulation gray zones. The county does not issue general business licenses. There are certain types of businesses that the Sheriff’s Department licenses, including escort services and public baths, but marijuana collectives are not among them.

The department has been investigating marijuana dispensaries for two years and recently served a warrant at one in Sunset Beach. But deputies look only for violations of state health and safety laws not county regulations, said Lt. Adam Powell, who heads the department’s narcotics unit.

Supervisors John Moorlach and Shawn Nelson rejected the idea that the need for a moratorium was urgent since the county has never approved a dispensary permit.

Supervisor Patricia Bates said the moratorium would send a message to dispensaries not to open until the county figured out its regulation policy.

In Sunset Beach it’s not clear how many dispensaries are still in business.

At the location of the former West County collective, a man who was recently working on the building said another dispensary was opening up and at least two others in the area were still operating as of last week.

For some, it is an example of what could happen if regulation of dispensaries remains vague.

“We didn’t need a concentration of them,” said Greg Griffin, president of the Sunset Beach Community Assn. “I didn’t think we needed six dispensaries.”