Baked dozen

Activists argue the city’s random plan to shutter cannabis clubs is illegal and will hurt patients

Sacramento’s new Interim City Manager Gus Vina explains to dispensary owners, attorneys, patients and activists the city’s first marijuana-ordinance proposal.

Sacramento’s new Interim City Manager Gus Vina explains to dispensary owners, attorneys, patients and activists the city’s first marijuana-ordinance proposal.


Watch video from the March 11 city meeting with cannabis stakeholders here.

Last week, city officials proposed a cannabis-club ordinance that would limit the number of marijuana dispensaries in Sacramento from 60 to 12. So how did officials come up with a dozen as the cap?

“We randomly picked 12. That’s the reality,” explained Michelle Heppner, project manager charged with crafting the ordinance.

Fourteen years ago, Proposition 215’s passage gave Californians the right to use, cultivate and collectively distribute medical marijuana. The initiative also permitted cities to regulate its cultivation, sale and distribution. Last week, after a decade that has seen cannabis collectives within city limits accelerate in number from zero to 60, Sacramento finally got around to releasing a draft ordinance at a meeting with dispensary owners, patients, activists and lawyers Thursday, March 11.

The cannabis community was less than impressed with the city’s initial effort.

The ordinance was shaped during a nine-month moratorium on city pot clubs that saw the number of dispensaries grow from 40 to an estimated 60 today. The city would weed that number down through tougher zoning restrictions and a lottery system to determine which 12 clubs will be permitted to operate.

Dispensary owners argue that closures will harm thousands of terminally ill patients who use the dispensaries’ free-marijuana “compassion” programs. Others claim that the ordinance is illegal and will put all but a few local collectives out of business. Some accused Sacramento of coming too late to the game. Project manager Heppner conceded that the city has no idea exactly how many clubs actually exist; even the precise number of patients is unknown, which means the demand for medical marijuana is also uncertain.

Interim City Manager Gus Vina, who began the March 11 meeting with brief remarks before immediately leaving, assured club owners and patients that their voices would be heard. The proposal, along with stakeholders’ feedback, will be presented to council members Lauren Hammond, Steve Cohn, Robbie Waters and Sandy Sheedy on April 6. They’ll decide whether to present the ordinance to the city council or go back to the drawing board.

Stakeholders objected to almost all of the ordinance’s components, particularly the limit of 12 dispensaries and what they say are “prohibitive” zoning and buffering restrictions.

Attorneys warned of lawsuits if the city forces through the ordinance.

“As the assistant city manager mentioned tonight, the number is random. You have a problem there,” said James Anthony, an attorney for Americans for Safe Access. He noted that an unsystematic, raffle-based approach, modeled after Oakland’s now-outdated 2004 ordinance, is “out of touch.”

“There are going to be lawsuits. For a long time,” he assured.

That’s more than a threat. Earlier this month, ASA sued the city of Los Angeles, arguing that its ordinance is for all intents and purposes a ban that would illegally shutter hundreds of the city’s dispensaries.

Sacramento’s proposal raises similar concerns. Jeanne Larsson, who owns A Therapeutic Alternative in East Sacramento, noted that only three existing dispensaries would comply with the city’s draft ordinance as written.

Specifically, stakeholders object to buffering restrictions, such as forcing dispensaries into remote industrial areas unreachable by public transit and a 300-foot buffer in residential areas, like Midtown.

Some argue that other regulations, such as no on-site consumption of medical cannabis, show that city officials don’t understand patients’ needs. What’s more, the ordinance doesn’t even address concerns regarding cultivation and distribution, a key oversight.

Some components of the ordinance even drew laughter. One, a requirement that dispensaries’ bathroom doors remain locked at all times, was cited as ridiculous.

Longstanding activist and AIDS patient Ryan Landers ultimately says the draft ordinance is a no-go. “Without that free marijuana, I couldn’t take my medications, I couldn’t eat once a day,” he said. At one point, a city official interrupted—“Are you wrapping up sir?”—but Landers refused. “I have been here longer than anybody standing in this building. I came here 14 years and two months ago and said we need to address this, and we need to regulate this. Fourteen years ago, January!” the frail-looking Landers asserted.

“Be courteous and don’t harm all these patients. Please don’t take their free marijuana away,” he concluded.

Dispensary owner Larsson urged that the city establish a task force to further research the ordinance. “If you have a task force to build a new arena for the Maloofs, surely you care about enough about the citizens of your city to establish a task force on medical marijuana,” she said. “For many people in the city, medical marijuana means more to them than an NBA basketball team.”