It may be legal in California but not federally—that was the stance the majority of Murrieta City Council members took Tuesday night when discussing medical marijuana.
Murrieta City Council moved to repeal an existing city ordinance that bans medical marijuana dispensaries as a business use, and replace it with one that bans them as a land use while also outlawing mobile dispensaries.
The vote was 3-1, with Councilman Harry Ramos dissenting and Councilman Randon Lane absent.
City administrators and legal counsel billed the revision as more legally sound in light of a handful of related lawsuits faced by the city and others around the state.
What makes it stronger, they said, is that is modeled after the City of Riverside’s ordinance, which was upheld in May by the California Supreme Court.
In the exercising their land use powers, Riverside and all other local jurisdictions are allowed, under zoning ordinances, to prohibit pot facilities as a use and abate them as a public nuisance, the high court ruled.
However, when Murrieta’s ban of medical marijuana dispensaries was enacted in 2005, it was addressed under the business license section of the city’s municipal code, while the city’s land use section is part its development code.
As such, Council members—with the exception of Ramos—voted Tuesday to enact the ordinance.
The deciding factor for Mayor Pro Tem Kelly Bennett was that marijuana—even in the medicinal form—remains illegal under federal law, which could subject the city to liabilities if it were to permit dispensaries.
“My concern is not on the validity of medical marijuana or not…The weigh-in here is federal law supersedes state law,” Bennett said.
For Ramos, it is his belief in “states’ rights” that prompted him to vote no on the stricter ordinance.
“I might morally disagree with it, but it is not my call,” Ramos told Patch. “I am also terrified by the decision of the California Supreme Court about zoning...Zoning started in New York City and it was meant to keep certain businesses away from residential and keep like businesses together, and somehow now that has morphed into complete control of what can come into my city.”
As for banning mobile dispensaries under the new ordinance, that was due to a growing trend among dispensary operators to conduct services solely via delivery, according to a city staff report.
Whether the city would regulate the receipt of medical marijuana deliveries within the city would have to be addressed in a separate ordinance, according to staff.
Prior to Council’s vote, two members of the public spoke in opposition to the city’s manner of regulating of dispensaries.
“I really don’t think it is something to be proud of that Murrieta has had a ban since 2005,” said resident Donald Lambert, who speaks on the benefits of medical marijuana at nearly every Council meeting. “I think it is something that the city should be embarrassed and disgraced about.”
Rather than an outright ban, Lambert suggested the city work with dispensaries.
A handful of dispensaries attempted to open up shop in Murrieta in recent years but were promptly shut down. The city has been involved in ongoing litigation with at least two of those dispensaries since.
“We do not have a permitting process, which is why the dispensaries have had to do what they have had to do,” Lambert said.
Local resident Marco Lezama agreed, and said: “We need a safe environment for patients.”
Murrieta police Capt. Dennis Vrooman maintained that it would be difficult to do because unlike pharmaceutical drugs, medical marijuana it is not regulated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
“Anything that gets shipped to pharmacies is tracked by the DEA and has to get reported back,” Vrooman said. “...There are checks and balances.”
On the other hand, there is no way to track medical marijuana such as where it comes from, Vrooman said. That can result in illegal drug activity within the city, he said.
Mayor Rick Gibbs was of the same opinion.
"Unsavory elements gravitate toward dispensaries," Gibbs said.
The mayor threw his full support behind the ordinance, and blamed the gray areas regarding medical marijuana on the failures of legislators to come up with comprehensive laws. This has created a "cottage industry" that carries with it crimes such as armed robberies, Gibbs said.
"Those kinds of crimes taking place on our city streets? Is that what our citizens want?" Gibbs asked.