SAN DIEGO (CNS) - A moratorium on new medical marijuana dispensaries in unincorporated areas of San Diego County was extended until March of next year by a unanimous vote of the Board of Supervisors Wednesday.
The 5-0 vote gives the county more time to modify existing regulations of medical marijuana businesses, but not ban them altogether. The moratorium was initially adopted last month.
A potential statewide ballot measure to legalize recreational use of marijuana may go before voters in November. Passage of such a measure would make enforcement of dispensaries more complex, according to county staff.
"I don't think penalizing business people that follow the rules is the right thing to do," Supervisor Dave Roberts said. "We need to fix this problem. We need to get ready for this November and what's coming at us for the long term."
Eventually, county staff plans to return to the board and present enforcement options, including making zoning laws more strict for legal marijuana dispensaries and increasing penalties for violators, but not phasing out the county's two legally operating facilities in Ramona and unincorporated El Cajon.
Misty Dornan of Ramona spoke in favor of extending the moratorium. She lives on the same street as a proposed dispensary and worries about marijuana ending up in the hands of children in her neighborhood.
She told the board that she is not against the compassionate use of marijuana and urged the board to look at all the options.
"I'm not scared of it. It does not bring me fear,'' Dornan said. "I believe we can come up with a solution that will work for everybody."
One of the issues brought up by proponents of a ban and the supervisors is having too many dispensaries in one community.
"We have one marijuana dispensary now in Ramona, with another five permitted to open," said Jim Piva, chairman of the Ramona Planning Group.
"That brings a dangerous burden to our community.''
The board and opponents also addressed the proliferation of dispensaries operating illegally.
"We need to really make sure that anyone who is operating illegally never has the capacity to apply for a permitted marijuana storefront," said Judy Strang, executive director of San Dieguito Alliance for Drug Free Youth.
"We do not need to have something that's available to children and adults that are not properly tested, labeled, quantified and qualified. That's what we have at marijuana storefronts," she said.
The board also heard from the owner of one of the two marijuana storefronts that is operating legally under the county ordinance.
"You made the rules, we played by them," said Lincoln Fish, CEO of Outco Labs and Outliers Collective. "In fact, we spent millions just so we could be in compliance with the playbook that you set forth."
Fish said he planned to open more legal dispensaries until the ban was imposed last month. Attorney Jessica McElfresh represented the owners of property in Valley Center that had been approved by the board for a medical marijuana facility.
They were in the permitting process when the ban was approved last month. "I do encourage you to consider changes,'' McElfresh said during her remarks in front of the packed chamber at the County Administration Center downtown.
"I ask you to allow those in the pipeline, especially those at the finish line and relied on good faith, to move forward and provide for safe access."
Supervisor Dianne Jacob reminded attendees that the board did not deny access to medical marijuana when the moratorium was imposed last month. "It's kind of like hitting the pause button, a time-out, to give staff more time to take look at it,'" Jacob said.
The city of San Diego is the only municipality in the county that allows medical marijuana dispensaries within city limits. The 17 other cities in the county have banned them. The board indicated that an outright ban of medical marijuana dispensaries was not an option in the long run.
"I want to make sure that those that have relied on our existing ordinance, that have played by the rules, that have done everything that they were required to do, are allowed to reach their conclusion, whatever that is," Supervisor Greg Cox said.