A proposed 45-day moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries in unincorporated Orange County failed by one vote Tuesday as the county prepares for the possibility of even more marijuana distribution if the drug is legalized by voters in November’s statewide election.
County supervisors expressed frustration at the county’s lack of rules and regulations governing medical marijuana dispensaries, and the prospect that the aggravation could be magnified if Prop. 19 – which would legalize marijuana in California – is approved by voters and the county doesn’t have a system already set up to oversee dispensaries.
“We are going to be inundated potentially in 120 days by folks who now cannot only do medical marijuana but any kind of marijuana and we’re going to say we have no rules,” said Supervisor Pat Bates, who voted for the temporary ban.
The county ordinance, which would have immediately banned new dispensaries and already existing dispensaries without the proper permits, needed to be approved by 4/5 of the board of supervisors.
Supervisors John Moorlach and Shawn Nelson voted against the emergency ordinance, arguing there wasn’t a crisis to warrant immediate adoption of the freeze on dispensaries.
Instead county staff was ordered to come up with an ordinance by Nov. 9 which would regulate medical marijuana cooperatives and plan ahead for the possible legalization of marijuana in the Nov. 2 election. Staff was also directed to plan for the potential tax ramifications of Prop. 19 which would allow cities and counties to tax marijuana.
County staff proposed the emergency ban in order to come up with a comprehensive strategy to deal with medical marijuana dispensaries as well as the possible fallout if marijuana becomes legal for people over the age of 21, said Orange County Public Works Director Jess Carbajal.
California voters legalized medical marijuana in 1996, making it the first medical marijuana state, but the law did not police dispensaries or set up a system to hand out the drugs.
In 2003, the state Legislature passed the Medical Marijuana Program Act, which set up an identification system for medical marijuana users that allowed qualified patients and their primary caregivers to obtain medical marijuana.
According to county staffers, an estimated 11 medical marijuana dispensaries are operating in unincorporated Orange County. None of the cooperatives is permitted under county land use permits, according to a county staff report. Only one applied for a permit, but quickly withdrew the application, Carbajal said.
But without rules in place, the county has little teeth to dictate what can and cannot be done about dispensaries, Carbajal said. County staffers are also concerned that by rejecting the ban could open the door for already existing dispensaries to be grandfathered in.
“It seems like no one starts with well the people voted for it, how do we accommodate it? It’s always the opposite,” Nelson said. “The people voted for it. Therefore how do we exert out will and stop it.”
While several Orange County cities have adopted their own laws when it comes to dispensaries, county CEO Tom Mauk admitted the county is behind the power curve in addressing the issue of regulating medical marijuana dispensaries.
The county’s lack of action has created an opportunity in unincorporated Orange County where cooperatives are setting up shop without strict rules and regulations, he said.
Still at issue, however, is how the inherent conflicts with federal law – which bans the use, possession and sale of marijuana – will be resolved.