Courts & Crime

Central Valley cities try to snuff out pot shops

Fresno isn't the only central San Joaquin Valley community working to weed out medical-marijuana dispensaries. In recent months, counties and smaller cities across the Valley have been scrambling to pass laws banning the businesses.At least six cities and two counties in the region have approved temporary or permanent bans on dispensaries, apparently in response to a new Obama administration policy that has prompted several such clubs to open up in the Valley.

Fresno’s effort to shutter dispensaries may have led many of them to look for more receptive communities, but with little luck. Shortly after Fresno officials went to court in September to close nine dispensaries, many smaller cities in the surrounding area began fielding calls — some of them anonymous — from people who wanted to know whether they could open similar businesses.

“Apparently they were asking every city,” said Parlier City Manager Lou Martinez. “We said, ‘This is not a good thing.’ ”

It’s unclear, however, if the bans are legal. Some proponents of medical marijuana say they plan to challenge the new ordinances in court. Medical marijuana is legal in California under Proposition 215, which was approved by voters in 1996. But many distributors worried they would still be arrested for selling the drug because it is illegal under federal law.

That fear abated, however, after the Obama administration announced in March that the Justice Department would no longer prosecute medical marijuana distributors who followed state laws.

As a result, over the last year at least nine dispensaries opened in Fresno and at least three opened in Madera County.

Most dispensaries serve hundreds or thousands of patients each. By law, they must be nonprofits. Generally they work like this: The owner buys marijuana from members of the dispensary — or club, as they prefer to be called — and sells the cannabis to other members who don’t grow marijuana. The drug comes in various forms and is less expensive than if bought on the street. Dispensary owners say members must have prescriptions from their doctors before they can buy medical marijuana.

Local officials say they are opposed to dispensaries for several reasons, including fears that they would increase crime, jeopardize federal funding, and — as Reedley City Manager Rocky Rogers put it — “sedate the public into believing that marijuana is something that is a good thing.”

A few cities already had ordinances banning or regulating dispensaries. But those that did not — realizing that it would be much more difficult and contentious if they tried to pass an ordinance after a dispensary opened up in town — moved quickly to approve bans.

Parlier, Firebaugh, Dinuba, and Reedley passed ordinances permanently banning future and existing dispensaries. Orange Cove is considering a similar measure. Selma, Visalia, Kingsburg and Madera County passed temporary bans on dispensaries — most of them for a year. Tulare County approved an ordinance that bans dispensaries until the courts and legislature more clearly define the law.

Read the full story at the Fresno Bee.