It took a while, but the San Diego Planning Commission finally voted 3-2 Thursday in favor of an ordinance that seeks to strictly regulate how medical marijuana dispensaries operate in the City of San Diego.
The ordinance, which outlines where and how dispensaries can run, could reach the City Council's table in as soon as five weeks, said Stephen Hill, senior policy advisor to councilman Todd Gloria.
The Planning Commission received over 100 speaker slips and listened to nearly three hours of discussion inside the council chambers of the City Administration, and the process resulted in three amendments.
First, colleges and universities were added to a list of establishments from which medical marijuana dispensaries must distance themselves by at least 1,000 feet to legally operate. The other establishments are schools, playgrounds, libraries, child care facilities, youth facilities, churches, parks and other dispensaries.
Second, should the ordinance pass, every medical marijuana dispensary -- there are currently about 180 in the City of San Diego -- will be allowed a six-month grace period to reach ordinance compliance after the effective date.
Third, the commissioners allowed the City Council to reduce the residential neighborhood buffer to 600 feet.
The addition of colleges and universities was fueled by a local response. Since July 2010, Point Loma Nazarene, San Diego State and the University of San Diego have separately requested their campuses be included in the buffer zone.
Other than that, the ordinance remained the same.
It seeks to limit medical marijuana dispensaries to five different zones: Industrial Zone (IL-1-3), Industrial Small Lot zone (IS-1-1), and three Community Commercial zones allowing Watchkeepers Quarters as the only permitted residential use (CC-2-1, CC-2-2 and CC-2-3).
Along with being located outside a radius and inside five zones, dispensaries would be required to gain a Process 4 Conditional Use Permit.
The permit would impose “requirements and restrictions regarding signage, security, lighting and hours of operation,” according to the agenda.
“Currently, all of the dispensaries that are operating in San Diego are operating illegally because there are no zones in which they’re allowed,” Hill said. “In the absence of regulations, dispensaries are opening everywhere and it’s causing confusion. This will provide some clarity.”
According to San Diegans for Safe Neighborhoods, the number of known marijuana retailers in the City of San Diego has increased by 700 percent in the past 18 months.
Dr. John Bombaro, pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in North Park, and his wife both spoke at Thursday's meeting. They blamed the local dispensary boom for a crime rise in their neighborhood. Six different medical marijuana dispensaries are located within 100 feet of their church.
“A year ago we had none and now he have six (dispensaries),” Bombaro said Wednesday. “Now we have problems and it affects all of us. …Now is the time for us to get control of this thing, which has already become immediately out of control in our neighborhood.”
Directly across the street from the Grace Lutheran Church, four dispensaries operate in the same professional office building. Steve Greenwald, the building’s landlord, said there has been “minimal” crime in the area with the exclusion of the occasional “bad apple.”
“All we can do is be a good neighbor,” Greenwald said. “I try to be the best neighbor we can.”
Benny Vincent is a manager at Horizon Medical Cannabis in San Diego. He said he believes the 1,000-foot radius should be reduced to 500 or 700 feet and that more than five zones should be allowed for medical marijuana dispensaries to operate.
As the issue likely heats up over the coming weeks and months, the ordinance's location constrictions will be studied closely to determine whether or not enough dispensaries can exist to aptly fulfill the needs of medical marijuana patients.
Vincent called Thursday's meeting "just the beginning."