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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Medical Marijuana Dispensaries

Ethical Challenges for Local Government

Miriam Schulman

From deciding whether or not to allow medical marijuana dispensaries within their borders, to taxation policies, to siting clinics, to dealing with nuisance complaints, cities in California are struggling to cope with the explosion of medical marijuana into a what the Christian Science Monitor calls a $1.5 billion business.

Complicating the issue is the fact that marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, although California voters legalized it for medicinal purposes in 1996. The Obama administration has declined to prosecute medical marijuana users, but it has recently cracked down on "industrial marijuana cultivation centers."

The February 2012 quarterly meeting of the Center's Public Sector Roundtable brought together mayors, councilmembers, city attorneys, police chiefs, and other public officials to discuss the ethical challenges of dealing with medical marijuana dispensaries. Santa Cruz Councilmember Ryan Coonerty and San Jose Councilmember Pierluigi Oliverio described how the issues had been handled by their respective cities.

Coonerty explained that Santa Cruz citizens favor medical marijuana by a large margin and that 78 percent had voted to make the enforcement of marijuana laws on medical users the last priority for the city's law enforcement officials. Early on, the city decided to allow dispensaries but to strictly regulate how many and where.

Santa Cruz has two dispensaries and one collective, which are all in industrial zones and a moratorium on additional dispensaries. Because of stringent requirements for guards, cameras, and other security provisions, the dispensaries have actually improved the safety of the surrounding neighborhood.

Remaining issues for Santa Cruz, Coonerty said, included regulation and taxation. Cities, he argued, do not have the expertise to regulate such issues as product quality. Also, dispensaries are supposed to be non-for-profit entities, but the directors can give themselves big salaries. Is this an issue cities should try to regulate?

Some cities have taxed dispensaries to recoup costs from extra services their presence may require such as increased police presence. But, Coonerty pointed out, the result is to tax medical marijuana while not taxing other legal pharmaceuticals, which raises questions of fairness and accessibility for lower income patients.

Pierluigi Oliverio described the experience of San Jose, which now has 75 dispensaries. Oliverio said he did not believe it was his business to "get between a patient and a medical doctor," so he did not have a problem with medical marijuana in the abstract. But in reality, the dispensaries have created some problems.

First, he cited the "not in my backyard" attitude of many citizens, who may favor the availability of medical marijuana but do not want dispensaries in their neighborhoods.

He also discussed the discrepancies between federal and state laws, which have created uncertainties for cities. The Obama administration decided not to prosecute medical marijuana users, but, Oliverio predicted, a Republican president would probably reverse that policy.

Finally, Oliverio talked about the problem of reducing the number of dispensaries once they have already opened. Although San Jose's 75 dispensaries are more than the city would ideally like to have, what fair system could the council use to decide who should lose their permits?

"Over concentration," Oliverio said, was a natural place for cities to become involved in the issue, but doctors, he said should be regulated at the state level to avoid having different guidelines for different cities.

Members of the roundtable talked about how the issues have been handled in their cities by police, fire, council, mayor, and city manager. Several cities have banned dispensaries on the basis of federal laws against any kind of marijuana use. Police also described how easy it was for undercover officers to obtain medical marijuana cards by describing a fake ailment and worried about the spread of marijuana to those without a legitimate reason to use it.

As one city council member said, "For us, it's pretty clear that the issue is not about the value of medicinal marijuana; it's about the right of cities to control the environment that allows us to maintain order and reinforce community values on land use."

Medical Marijuana Dispensaries: Ethical Questions for Cities


Ryan Coonerty, Councilmember, Santa Cruz
Pierluigi Oliverio, Councilmember, San Jose
Judy Nadler, Senior Fellow in Government Ethics, MCAE, moderator

Diana Barnhart, Planning and Neighborhood Services Director, Milpitas
Diego Barragan, Policy Analyst, San Jose
David Cassas, Councilmember Los Altos
Yolanda Cervantes, San Jose
Krishan Chopra, Assistant City Attorney, Mountain View
Angelique Gaeta, Assistant to the City Manager, San Jose
Renee Gurza, Senior Deputy City Attorney, San Jose

Kirk Hanson, Executive Director, MCAE
Phil Kleinheinz, fire chief, retired, Santa Clara
David Knapp, City Manager, Cupertino
Kevin Kyle, Chief of Police, Santa Clara
Michael McFarland, SJ, Visiting Scholar, MCAE
Jamie McLeod, Councilmember, Santa Clara
Raania Mohsen, Executive Director, Santa Clara County Cities Association
Joe Pirzynski, Councilmember, Los Gatos
Nicky Santos, SJ, Visiting Scholar, MCAE
Miricam Schulman, Assistant Director, MCAE
Jennifer Sparacino, City Manager, Santa Clara
Janice Spuller, Planning and Transportation Planner, Milpitas
Scott Strickland, Senior Policy Analyst, Santa Clara
Steve Tate, Councilmember, Morgan Hill
Colleen Winchester, Senior Deputy City Attorney, San Jose

February 2012

Oct 22, 2015
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