by David Downs
The wheels of justice have begun grinding up the City of Richmond's budding medical cannabis dispensaries this week in what's become a de facto ban on pot clubs in one of the most liberal towns in the Bay Area.
Vaguely worded state law allows medical cannabis patients and caregivers to set up collectives and cooperatives protected from local law enforcement, but each city in California has taken a different approach to interpreting Proposition 215 and Assembly Bill 420. A spectrum of enforcement now exists in the state from Oakland's 'tax and regulate' approach — which has netted millions of tax dollars per year — to outright bans in places like the Southern California city of Anaheim, which is spending millions defending its ordinance in court.
Richmond city prosecutor Trisha Aljoe said she's in the process of getting injunctions then suing out of existence the city's eight dispensaries, arguing that they violate local land use regulations. Since Richmond lacks land use permits for cannabis dispensaries, none can legitmately be open, she says. “These places were applying for city business licenses as garden supply stores, and flower shops," she says. "It was fraud from the word 'go.'”
“Case law is crystal clear,” Aljoe adds. “You don't get to lie in business applications and you don't get to violate zoning law.”
Richmond dispensary operator John Clay opened his Pacific Alternative Health Center on Thanksgiving 2009, the seventh such dispensary in the area. “Richmond has no ordinance against it, so many people including me thought, 'If something wasn't illegal, then it must be legal,'" he says. "When we went to city planning, we found out there was no category in zoning laws to cover dispensaries. So I was honest and I told the guy at the planning department counter what I wanted to open. He said he wouldn't process the application. I said, 'Why? There's no ordinance against it.' He said, yeah, but he couldn't do it and the city council had an informal ban. My application for it caused the blow up.”
The city deployed an undercover narcotics officer with a fake injury, a doctor's recommendation and a fake driver's license to gain membership to the Pacific Alternative Health Center. Police asked to buy the biggest amount possible, which was a half a pound for $3,000. Clay has since been served with civil lawsuit, and an injunction against Clay's dispensary goes before a judge July 6th.
Aljoe says the narcotics sting proves that land use aside, local dispensaries do not meet standards set by Prop 215 and AB 420. “Our undercover cop doesn't know these guys. He goes in, pays money and walks out the door,” Aljoe says. “They're not even in compliance for California's Compassionate Use Act, where you have to be primary caregiver and be responsible for health, housing or some living arrangements.”
Aljoe says when the injunction is granted, the city can begin fining Clay for each day his doors remain open. It's a strategy being replicated one at a time for every club in town. Owners for the Green Mind Collective have also been served, they say. The dispensary's owners say they lack the funds to fight the City.
Some critics say Richmond should have bigger priorities than closing pot clubs in a town racked by violence — most recently, the nationally covered incident of a gang rape of a local high schooler while local citizens watched.
“How are we wasting our time?” Aljoe says. “We are prosecuting everything else just as aggressively.”
Aljoe also notes medical cannabis dispensing has led to two recent robberies as well as the robbery of a rather moronic San Francisco pot deliveryman.
There is a silver lining to the crackdown. Medical cannabis dispensaries in Berkeley and Oakland now have less competition.