City could change pot collective's rules

COSTA MESA — In their latest attempt to navigate through conflicting federal, state and local laws, city officials are proposing a change to the ban of marijuana dispensaries.

In a 4-1 vote, the Planning Commission recommended amending the city's marijuana ordinance so that it would not use federal marijuana laws to support a citywide ban on marijuana collectives. Instead, it will focus on the amount of people involved in operating a dispensary and use that amount to prohibit the collectives.

"We're in uncharted territory right now," said Planning Commission Chairman Jim Righeimer, a City Council candidate.

The City Council would need to approve the planners' recommendation for any changes to take effect.

The legal language would better reflect police enforcement over the last year but would not change it.

Earlier this year, Costa Mesa police cracked down on several, but not all, marijuana dispensaries in the city. While they're all technically illegal, police said they shut down the ones who grossly violated state laws on how to operate.

Affidavits attached to search warrants showed that officers monitored dispensaries where the marijuana was brought in from other cities, such as Santa Barbara, and were sold to anyone who had an easy-to-get marijuana prescription card.

In 1996, California voters approved Proposition 215, legalizing the medicinal use of marijuana. Federal laws still list marijuana as illegal, though under President Obama, federal authorities have stopped raiding dispensaries in states where the drug is legal for medicinal uses.

With marijuana collective groups across the state challenging cities on local prohibitions, Costa Mesa has to adjust its legislative language as judges weigh in, Righeimer said.

This latest change was inspired by an Aug. 18 ruling from the state Court of Appeal in Santa Ana over Anaheim's ban on dispensaries. The court addressed two issues: whether people could be prosecuted criminally for operating a dispensary; and if prohibiting a dispensary is legal.

On both points, the court's ruling was limited in scope. The three-judge panel wrote there is no established precedent that cities can prosecute people for operating marijuana collectives under federal law when state laws permit it.

In light of that, Costa Mesa's ordinance specifically states the city never has, nor ever will, prosecute someone criminally for operating a dispensary.

The city may shut down operators but will not try to send them to jail, according to the proposed ordinance.

Without the ability to point to federal law to support a ban, city officials are looking to define a dispensary as three or more people (as opposed to one person, as it was originally written) who distribute marijuana but don't cultivate it themselves.

"I'm taking it as a positive thing," said Susan Lester, who operates a dispensary in the city and is running for City Council. "Hopefully, they're willing to look at the best practices of medical marijuana to work and see that there's a certain number of people with legitimate problems who will have safe access. It can be a win-win for everybody."

The ordinance also offers a subtle change that doesn't appear to have been initiated from the Court of Appeal decision. When Costa Mesa's ordinance was passed in 2005, the purpose of the ban was to promote the "health, safety, morals and general welfare of the residents."

The newest version removed the word "morals."

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