The San Diego City Council voted Monday to place restrictions on where dispensaries can conduct business, barring pot sales within 600 feet of places of worship, parks, schools and other sensitive locations.
The council listened to four hours of public comment before voting 5 to 2 to confine dispensaries to light industrial and commercial areas of the city.
Under the ordinance that was originally proposed, pot sales would have been barred from within 1,000 feet of certain places, but city councilman Todd Gloria amended it to a 600-foot restriction.
Mayor Jerry Sanders has been asked by the council to come up with a plan in 30 days to implement the ordinances.
Ben Cisneros, of the nonprofit Canvass for a Cause, said the proposed regulations would push clinics out to far-flung industrial zones patrolled by federal agents near the U.S.-Mexico border and other remote areas that are difficult to reach.
More than 3,700 people wrote to city officials asking for a less restrictive ordinance to ensure AIDS patients, veterans and others have access to medical cannabis, he said.
"To force me to choose between suffocating and doing business with a drug dealer is morally repugnant," said Vey Linville, an emphysema sufferer who breathes with a portable oxygen tank. "I drink cannabis medicines to breathe. They keep me from suffocating."
"According to state law, we are legal. So we just want to keep that, and hold onto that. Because 'out there' is a lot tougher than where we're going to get what we've got now," said fellow medical marijuana patient Mark Sample.
Cisneros said regulations should allow dispensaries within 600 feet of schools and not require approval by the planning commission if they are in commercial zones and there are no complaints.
He also said keeping dispensaries more than 1,000 feet apart from each other limits them because few landlords want to rent to the clinics.
"They're trying to zone out medical cannabis dispensaries as if they were strip clubs and adult book stores," he said. "It's not providing access if you have to travel for hours on public transit and hours back with medical cannabis on you."
Medical marijuana has become a legal headache for many California cities and counties. Nearly a dozen cities across the state have imposed regulations in recent years that have forced many clinics to shutter their doors.
California voters approved the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes in 1996. But Proposition 215 -- the so-called "Compassionate Use Act" -- didn't specify how to distribute it, if not grown by qualified patients themselves.
The dispensaries have proliferated under the Obama administration, which defers to state laws on medical marijuana, a departure from the crackdowns on pot clubs under President George W. Bush. Narcotics officers have raided dispensaries that investigators say are using medical marijuana as a pretense to sell drugs.
Critics of the dispensaries, and certain clientele, argued there should be a total ban.
"It's not about seriously ill people getting their medicine," Pacific Beach resident Marcie Beckett told the Council. "It's really about the fact that medical marijuana has been hijacked by profiteers and recreational users."
"Any drug user, for any reason, can get a card to smoke pot legally," said Scott Chipman, chairman of San Diegans for Safe Neighborhoods. "That's where 97 percent of the marijuana being sold from storefront operations goes."