City Council considers new weapon against illegal marijuana dispensaries
Published : Monday, May 15, 2017 | 4:29 AM
The City of Pasadena may have come up with a powerful new weapon to use against a number of stubbornly persistent illegal marijuana dispensaries: an ordinance that would shut off water and power utilities at dispensary locations.
The ordinance, if passed, would be the first of its kind in Pasadena and would be used to target dispensaries in violation of an existing ordinance which since 2005 has outlawed such dispensaries, though the State of California legalized recreational marijuana in October of last year.
The proposed ordinance will be presented at Monday evening’s City Council meeting.
“I’m really hopeful this will give us a tool to shut down the illegal uses more quickly. It’s been frustrating both for me as a Councilmember and for my constituents that we’re not able to be more responsive,” said District 2 Councilmember Margaret McAustin.
“I’m hoping we’ll be able to turn off the water and or power,” McAustin said.
The proposed amendment is a result of the City’s search to identify and employ alternate enforcement tools for resolving Municipal Code violations, according to a report from the City’ Planning and Community Development and Water and Power Departments.
“The need for expanded compliance options has been exemplified in the City’s ongoing efforts to resolve noncompliant land use issues, particularly illegal marijuana dispensaries,” the report noted.
There are currently nine illegal dispensaries currently operating in the City, a city official said in April.
The proposed ordinance was the brainchild of the City’s Code Enforcement staff, and is modeled on similar actions taken by both Los Angeles and Anaheim.
Councilmember Victor Gordo weighed in on the issue, saying, “The issue of rogue marijuana dispensaries is a serious issue, in that it affects public safety. It’s a health issue because they are selling a substance that is consumed by the public and it’s also a complete snub and affront to a zoning code.”
“It’s irresponsible of these operators to jeopardize the public and the public safety in the way that they’re doing,” Gordo continued, “so we need some strong and serious action. It’s simply unacceptable.”
Pasadena’s zoning code is what is known as a permissive zoning code, meaning that the code sets forth a wide variety of “permissible” uses. At the same time, any use that is not specifically allowed is disallowed, according to the City of Pasadena Code Compliance office.
The October 2015 Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act put into place a variety of safeguards within the cannabis business sector through a robust regulatory scheme. The State law took effect in January 2016, and while it allows recreational use, it also protects a local municipality’s right to make their own ordinances with regard to allowing marijuana dispensaries.
According to State law, only those businesses that have obtained local permits or licenses may apply for a state-issued license with the California Department of Consumer Affairs and its Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation.
“At this point, these are rogue operators and there is no compromise. They don’t have a license to operate, land use regulations prohibit them from operating and from my view they are jeopardizing public health and public safety. At the moment, I don’t see a middle ground,” said Gordo.
“[The proposed ordinance] is a cost effective way to deal with illegal marijuana businesses,” says Michelle Brooke, a Pasadena attorney who specializes in marijuana-related issues. “It makes sense for that reason, but Pasadena needs move out of the dark ages and acknowledge that just as alcohol became legal many years ago, the same thing is happening with cannabis. Therefore, the City must provide safe access to this product in the community. And the resources are there.”
Local dispensaries are naturally concerned about the proposed ordinances’ effect on their businesses.
“It just seems that they are taking a very unpolitical and harsh approach by cutting off the utilities of these operators who are operating in compliance with state law,” said Shaun Szameit, owner of Golden State Collective dispensary, which has operated since 2006 out of a storefront on Mentor Avenue next door to the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce.
“We have thousands of Pasadena residents who are in fact cardholders,” Szameit continued. “I get that they are moving towards an ordinance, but at what point do they move towards a merit system to decide who and why they should operate?”
“Targeting people’s utilities seems inhumane,” said Szameit.
“[Dispensaries] don’t have any options in the City of Pasadena, and that’s really unfortunate,” said attorney Brooke.
Understandably, not every Pasadena resident sees the marijuana dispensaries as nuisances.
“It doesn’t seem to be a top of mind concern of residents from my perspective,” offered Jonathan Edewards of the Downtown Pasadena Residents Association, “but I’m sure there are people out there who are more experienced with this issue and it’s perhaps worthy of regulation. I think there are lots of issues in town that are pressing and this wouldn’t be one that I would personally put up there.”
While the City focuses on shutting down the businesses, there is also concern regarding the property owners.
“Somebody’s renting these spaces, and getting money for it,” said McAustin. “Whether or not they know it’s illegal, I couldn’t say, but we need to certainly do an information campaign to let landlords know we’re going to be looking for tools to go after them as well.”
But involving landlords may be a step too far, counters attorney Brooke.
“I don’t think it’s a good policy to come down on the landlord,” Brooke commented. “The fact is that the landlord wants to take advantage of the opportunities for a robust commercial cannabis business as well. So if we have landlords that have space that’s properly zoned and not within 600 feet of sensitive areas, then we should allow them the opportunity to do business with their property. We should be supporting that, not want to assess fines on them.”
And keeping businesses from having access to essential utilities, such as water and electricity, could be a safety hazard for tenants occupying retail space in Pasadena, says Szameit.
“I feel that it’s rather unjust,” he added. “What if there’s a fire inside this building and now I don’t have water? What if the building has a residence? Are you shutting off this residence from water and power? Those are a few of my concerns. I don’t think this is a correct way to go about this.”
Szameit continued, “I’d be short changing myself to back off now. I’ve been embroiled in a big tug of war, and I’m just trying to provide safe access [to marijuana]. I have a lot of Pasadena residents who are members and a lot of really ill people, and people that utilize this medicine to function in their daily lives. I’m just trying to create really good jobs and I’m trying to help people,” said Szameit.
Should the ordinance be approved, it could go into effect in the City as soon as early as June.