CA: Oceanside OKs Commercial Medical Cannabis Cultivation

Photo Credit: Christopher Chung

Oceanside became the first city in North County to approve the commercial cultivation of medical marijuana this week with a compromise that delays the opening of any dispensaries.

An ordinance approved Wednesday will allow the cultivation, testing, manufacture and distribution of medical marijuana in certain areas of the city east of Interstate 5 by individuals or businesses that qualify for licenses and permits, and pay the yet-to-be determined fees.

“We’ve got the ball rolling,” Councilman Jerry Kern said after the 4-1 vote, with Councilman Jack Feller opposed.

Dispensaries were the stickiest point in the proposal, Kern said, with disagreements over where they should go and whether there should be two, four or more. In a compromise proposed by Mayor Peter Weiss, the council agreed to delay the licensing of any dispensaries until the Police Department can look further into the issues involved.

Kern and Councilman Chuck Lowery served almost a year on an ad hoc committee with residents appointed by the Oceanside City Council to explore ways to license and regulate cannabis businesses.

“People asked us to shine a light on this business and keep it honest,” Lowery said Wednesday.

The ad hoc committee held a series of eight public meetings with residents and industry representatives, took field trips and worked with city staffers to prepare the proposed ordinance.

More than 60 speakers addressed the council on the issue Wednesday, each limited to two minutes or less, and about two-thirds of the speakers favored legalization.

Many of the opponents were students, parents and representatives of nonprofits such as the North Coastal Prevention Coalition, who said any legalization would contribute to the “normalization” of marijuana and make it easier for young people to obtain.

Supporters of legalization repeatedly made the argument that cannabis is a medicine that helps many people, especially the elderly, cancer patients, and veterans and others suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Medical marijuana has honestly saved my life and my marriage,” said a retired Marine master sergeant, who was discharged with a 100 percent disability and became addicted to opiates.

Several speakers said cannabis helped them stop using opiates and get their lives back in order.

Oceanside’s ordinance will return to the City Council for a routine second reading at the April 11 meeting, and will become effective 30 days after that.

No licenses or permits will be issued until the city has established a fee structure to cover the costs of the service. That is expected to take 120 to 180 days, said Assistant City Manager Deanna Lorson.

Any local tax on marijuana or related products would have to be approved by the city’s voters, Lorson said, and the earliest that could go on the ballot is November 2020.

The ordinance was approved over the objections of the city’s police chief and fire chief, who submitted letters expressing their concerns about enforcement difficulties, the potential for increased crime, and health and public safety hazards.

Oceanside farmers, especially in the rural Morro Hills area, have been among the leading advocates for legalized cultivation. They say cannabis could be the cash crop they need to replace traditional agricultural products such as tomatoes and avocados that are being pushed out by the high costs of water, labor and land.

San Diego County Farm Bureau Executive Director Eric Larson commended the city for its action, but said the ordinance is too restrictive. He said the city should reduce the 1,000-foot buffer zone required between cannabis greenhouses, and increase the maximum percentage of a grower’s property that the crop can cover.

The ordinance first presented to the council Wednesday would have allowed two dispensaries. However, the council agreed to wait until the Police Department can study how other dispensaries operate and present some recommendations for ways Oceanside should do it.

Asked how long that would take, Police Chief Frank McCoy said he’d like a year, and Kern said 90 days should be enough, but no time frame was established.

McCoy said after the meeting that his department has looked at some dispensaries, primarily in Colorado, where voters approved medical marijuana in 2000 and recreational marijuana in 2012. However, more time is needed to study how dispensaries work in California.

“Our whole purpose will be to bring some meaningful recommendations to the council,” McCoy said. “This whole thing is new to everybody.”

Oceanside’s council voted two years ago to allow deliveries of medical marijuana purchased legally outside the city to its residents, and has approved licenses for two distributors. That service will continue.

The ad hoc committee’s recommendation originally included recreational marijuana in the proposed ordinance. However, all support for the recreational element was removed at a meeting in December to get the support of Councilman Jack Feller and break a 2-2 tie vote, with former Mayor Jim Wood absent. Wood retired Jan. 1, and Weiss later was appointed to fill the vacant seat.

Despite Feller’s vote in December, he cast the only nay Wednesday. He said he continues to believe legalization will harm children and “I can’t do this in any good conscience.”

Councilwoman Esther Sanchez, who opposed the measure in December, voted for the modified ordinance Wednesday.

The San Diego City Council voted 6-3 in September to legalize cultivation, testing, the manufacture of products such as edibles, and retail sales in storefront dispensaries for recreational and medical marijuana.

The only other cities in the county that allow dispensaries are La Mesa and Lemon Grove.

San Diego County has licensed several dispensaries including at least one that is also a commercial grower, the Outliers Collective, which opened in 2014 near Gillespie Field outside El Cajon. The collective has an indoor growing operation that produced about 1,000 pounds of marijuana last year, and is on track to double that amount or more this year.

The Vista City Council voted this month to place a marijuana initiative on the ballot in November that, if approved by voters, would allow a limited number of marijuana retailers, and delivery, testing and cultivation services.

The city’s ballot initiative will compete with a separate measure placed on the ballot by the group Vistans for Safe Community Access. It would allow more dispensaries and lesser penalties for violators than the city’s measure.

Most other North County cities have passed local ordinances to supersede state laws and prohibit the commercial cultivation and sale of medical and recreational marijuana.

Despite the evolving regulations, law enforcement officials often shut down illicit cannabis sales operations across North County and arrest the people involved.