Will Richmond Close Its Pot Clubs Before Its New Law Goes Into Effect?

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A new ordinance passed by the Richmond City Council this week that legalizes the sale of medical marijuana may be in direct conflict with previously issued injunctions against the city's eight dispensaries. And it's creating an awkward legal limbo-state for Richmond's pot club employees and managers, as well as calling into question continued access for customers.

After a second reading of the ordinance at next Tuesday's Council meeting, it'll take at least thirty days for the ordinance to legally take effect. That means the injunctions remain in place until then, and they could conceivably force all of Richmond's current dispensaries out of business between now and whenever the new law goes into full effect. If that were to happen, then medical pot patients in Richmond would have to travel to Berkeley or Oakland to buy cannabis.

Richmond City prosecutor Trisha Aljoe said she plans to move forward with the injunctions against the existing dispensaries in her city. "At this point, all of the dispensaries are still operating in violation of current law," Aljoe said, citing the fact that according to city zoning law, pot clubs are out of bounds - not explicitly, but by default - and the fact that many of the dispensary operators were less than straightforward on their permit applications.

"A marijuana dispensary is not a legal use in this city," Aljoe said, referring to Richmond law prior to the council's vote Tuesday night. "Plus, they're operating without the proper license. The new ordinance won't even be implemented until there's some sort of infrastructure [to issue permits] in place. Until then, you can't operate in violation of the law. Besides, it still has to pass the second reading."

In its current draft form, the ordinance allows for an unlimited number of medical pot collectives licensed by the city manager (or his designee) and permitted in any commercial district without "buffer" requirements, meaning that various dispensaries may be located close to one another, according to the original ordinance's author and Richmond City Attorney's office staffer, Mary Renfro.

Councilman Tom Butt called it "the most liberal and wide-open pot ordinance in the state of California - maybe the whole country."

The biggest restriction in the ordinance might be a requirement calling for a public hearing prior to the issuing of any further permits, with notice given to property owners and occupants within a 750-foot radius of any dispensary's intended location.

"We're doing everything we can to allow public input," Renfro said.

On Tuesday night, the Richmond City Council had a heated, three-and-a-half-hour discussion on what to do about its eight under-fire dispensaries, not to mention future medical-marijuana business interests in the city. After a uniformly positive public comment session in support of local clubs - and despite some grouchy hectoring of dispensary supporters by Butt - Richmond's council passed the amended ordinance shortly before midnight.

Jay Newell, a partner from one of Richmond's dispensaries, Marina Bay Parkway's Golden State Health Center, said he was pleased with the council's 4-3 vote to get the new ordinance in place. However, he said he still fears that his livelihood - and the health of his customers - is in jeopardy.

"It's better than what we had before," he said. "But they didn't come out and say they'd stop the lawsuits. I applaud their willingness to do something, but I don't think patients should suffer because city management doesn't follow the instructions of City Council. "

There is also a citywide moratorium on any further dispensaries that ends in January.

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