Friday, February 23 , 2018, 7:15 am | Fair 45º


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Accessibility at Core of Heated Debate Over Marijuana Dispensaries

As the Santa Barbara council prepares to weigh in on ordinance revisions, there are those speaking up for patients and those advocating to protect youths

The discussions surrounding Santa Barbara’s medical marijuana dispensary ordinance have consisted of two very different conversations that — not surprisingly — parallel the City Council’s insistence on splitting the revisions process into two phases.

When the last Ordinance Committee first picked it up, meetings focused on tangible revisions, such as new requirements for an applicant’s location and security. The so-called Phase II discussions danced around the unanswerable question of whether storefront dispensaries are legal under state law, and what the city can put in its ordinance to reinforce the collective model — that is to say, a closed-loop, nonprofit organization consisting of qualified patients and its primary caregivers.

It is that last group of people who are the most affected — yet least vocal — about this legislation, even as the conversation tilts less and less in favor of the existence of dispensaries.

The City Council will consider revisions to the ordinance at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the Council Chambers at City Hall, 735 Anacapa St. A coalition supporting a ban of dispensaries has organized a rally at De la Guerra Plaza at 5 p.m.

While there has been a core group of citizens who’ve attended every public meeting on the issue, there’s not one self-declared patient among them. Several patients have come forward individually to express the need for safe, dependable access to medical marijuana, but more commonly, dispensary owners and physicians have spoken in support of the ordinance revisions.

Heather Poet, who spearheaded the city’s Measure P and operates the Santa Barbara Patients Group on Upper State Street, says she’s not surprised more patients haven’t come forward to speak about the ordinance.

There are those who are too sick to get out of bed, those who worry that talking publicly about their use of medical marijuana could affect their career or everyday life, and those who take it upon themselves to speak up, she said.

“It’s irrational and unreasonable to think they can be doing this themselves,” Poet said.

Many patients don’t have the knowledge, money or ability to grow their own, and the perception of abuse makes public officials and citizens lump the legitimate organizations along with the clearly illegal operations, she said.

Dr. David Bearman, a local physician and expert witness on the subject of psychoactive drugs and cannabis, said the medical merit of marijuana shouldn’t even be part of the conversation.

Putting aside his frustration that marijuana can’t be sold in pharmacies because of federal laws — which would make dispensaries wholly unnecessary — he said further preventing access by banning dispensaries would harm the ill and informed.

“It’s making it difficult for people who are sick to get a drug that helps them,” he said.

He acknowledged that abuse of the system happens, but he said he was unaware of any difficulty of teenagers getting cannabis during the past 40 years — with or without dispensaries.

On the physician end of illegal access, he said he roots out the dishonest would-be patients pretty easily. Sometimes, a few simple questions about diagnosis, medical history and how their health problems interfere with daily life are all it takes.

As to abuse, concerns are the same as any pharmacy, Poet said: that a controlled substance will get out of the hands of the intended person.

On the other — significantly louder — side of the dispensary debate are school district officials, substance abuse treatment organizations and residents involved in youth activities or their neighborhoods. They all support the compassionate use of medical marijuana, but many of them have supported an outright ban on storefront collective dispensaries within the city of Santa Barbara.

Concern centers on the abuse of dispensaries and increased opportunities for illegal access to marijuana. Residents have repeatedly focused on children and those recovering from substance abuse as vulnerable populations.

The Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse and its Fighting Back coalition have a close connection with both, through the Daniel Bryant Youth and Family Treatment Center, where the Santa Barbara School District sends students after a second drug offense, and Project Recovery for adults.

“It makes it so much more accessible,” president Penny Jenkins said of allowing dispensaries. Fighting Back has supported a full ban throughout the revision process, despite the new restrictions requiring dispensaries to be 500 feet away from a school, park or recovery facility.

“There’s no kid that can’t walk 500 or 1,000 feet,” she said.

According to the 2008-09 Healthy Kids survey, students in the Santa Barbara district’s secondary schools have reported a decreasing perception of harm from using marijuana since 2002, with perceived access increasing since 2004. The perception of harm from alcohol has remained steady. Students also reported viewing marijuana use to be less harmful than either the use of alcohol or tobacco, and just as accessible.

Fighting Back coordinator Jen Lemberger said that even if dispensaries were run perfectly, there would be individuals abusing the system. While supporters of a ban have spoken in support of the Compassionate Care Act, they see a disconnect between collectives and the storefront-model dispensaries.

The city permitted three dispensaries under the suspended ordinance. And throughout the revision process, local law enforcement and the city attorney’s office have been going after illegal dispensaries — those that did not comply to any dispensary ordinance and were believed to have broken state law as well — through raids, arrests and court action.

Ordinance Committee and Planning Commission recommendations differ a good deal — as they did the last time revisions went before the City Council — and public comment most likely will take up a large portion of Tuesday’s meeting.

This is the second time revisions have gone before the City Council since last July, and the ordinance needs five votes to be adopted.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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