Planners mull pot dispensaries

Advocates and opponents of medical marijuana voiced their opinions Wednesday at a Planning Commission hearing on a proposed ordinance that would legalize dispensaries in Laguna Beach.

The commission hearing was a review of a draft ordinance ordered by the City Council, comporting with a state law passed in 1996 that exempts “qualified users” and lawful suppliers from criminal prosecution. The ordinance, if adopted, would put Laguna Beach in the minority of cities in surrounding areas.

Opinions expressed by the public were divided.

“I am dissatisfied with the council decision to support an ordinance that virtually no other city has,” said Timothy Aires, a resident and parent. “You have been tasked to craft an ordinance. Please take into account the interests of our young people and our families.”


Aires was distressed by the response of his 15-year-old daughter when told about the possible ordinance: “Cool!”

Resident Ross Embry saluted the girl’s reaction.

“Marijuana is not a gateway drug. It’s a good thing, not a bad thing,” said Embry, who identified himself as a longtime user living with AIDS.

People living with AIDS and cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy are among the champions of access to medical marijuana.


“I got into the field when my grandfather had bladder cancer,” said Sheridan Linehan, who has filed an application with the city to open a dispensary and rented offices.

Linehan said his maternal grandfather was losing weight because chemotherapy was making him nauseous and unable to eat.

“We heard about medical marijuana, and it helped him,” Linehan said. ”It improved his life before he passed. I have been studying it ever since.”

Linehan said his grandfather smoked marijuana and ate products laced with it.

City staff recommended barring edible products in dispensaries in Laguna, a position disputed by some advocates.

“Patients with respiratory problems find it easier to swallow than to smoke,” said Laguna Beach High School senior Will Armstrong.

The commission must also decide whether to recommend a ban on marijuana not grown on the site of the dispensary.

Linehan said on-site cultivation was essential in order to control the chemicals and additives to the marijuana and to simplify police oversight.


However, Cha Hanna, a representative of Americans for Safe Access, said some patients might be too debilitated to get to the dispensary and would find it more comfortable to grow their own marijuana. She also weighed in on the 1,000-foot separation from schools, parks, libraries, youth activities areas and other dispensaries, which severely limits where dispensaries could be located. A 500-foot alternative was also presented.

The commission directed staff to come up with a compromise of the two distances. Maps showing the allowable locations under the different distances will be revised, along with revisions to the draft ordinance, based on comments from commission.

“A revised map will be available [to the public] in the Community Development Department,” said Ann Larson, planning manager. “The proposed ordinance should be tweaked in about a week.”

The commission’s directions to staff included splitting the proposed ordinance in two: one dealing with the use and the other to regulate operations.

Regulations would include dispensary hours of operation, security measures, methods of payment, personnel salaries and locations of offices in buildings.

“We should fashion this around collectives and cooperatives,” said Commissioner Rob Zur Schmiede, who would prefer eliminating the designation of “dispensary,” which smacks to him of a retail operation.

Concern was expressed on how to prevent the resale of marijuana obtained at dispensaries for profit.

“I see this as an enforcement nightmare for the police department,” Commissioner Anne Johnson said.


The commission also considered how to track the expenses and what expenses would be appropriate for the not-for-profit dispensaries.

“We almost need a profit-and-loss statement,” Zur Schmiede said. “I don’t think it would be appropriate for an operator to draw a $200,000-a-year salary.”

Once the council direction to craft an ordinance is completed, the commission will then consider its own point of view on dispensaries.

“We are charged to prepare an ordinance for council consideration,” Zur Schmiede said. “When it goes forward, we will need to formulate our position.”

School board member Ketta Brown, speaking only for herself, said she found it hypocritical of the council to mandate a medical marijuana ordinance after telling the board at a joint meeting that the district had a big problem with drugs and alcohol.

“It is a mistake going down this road,” resident Brock Lister told the commission. “You need to tell the City Council, and that is what I am going to do.

“Leave drugs to the drugstores and doctors to dispense. This would legitimize the drug underworld.”

However, William Britt, executive director of the Association Assn. of Patient Advocates, said regulation is important to keep qualified medical marijuana users from being hauled off to jail.

“The hearing went about as I expected, but I think we [advocates] had some impact on the commission,” Britt said.

If the ordinance is adopted, Laguna Beach would be the only city in South County other than Laguna Woods to have a law on the books, and one of the few in Orange County.

At the last count, Larson said, dispensaries are banned by 112 communities, including Newport Beach, Costa Mesa, San Juan Capistrano and Mission Viejo.

Dispensaries are said to be operating in Dana Point, which does not track them because the city does not issue business licenses, and San Clemente.

Laguna Woods has an ordinance, but landlords there are understood to refuse to rent space for a dispensary.

Laguna currently has a moratorium on dispensaries, imposed in February and extended in March until October.

The next hearing on the ordinance is set for June 24.

BARBARA DIAMOND can be reached at (949) 380-4321 or