Jul 132010

Medical marijuana dispensaries have proliferated in unincorporated areas around Fresno since the city started cracking down on them last year.

Now Fresno County is considering closing dispensaries as well, the Fresno Bee reports, using the same legal tool Fresno and other local governments have employed — zoning laws.

The Board of Supervisors plans to discuss an ordinance today that would force dispensaries to temporarily close while county officials draft regulations for the operations.

If the law is approved, county officials would then have to seek court orders to close the dispensaries.

Sheriff Margaret Mims, who is proposing the ban, says dispensaries are magnets for crime. She points to a recent burglary and an attempted robbery of county dispensaries, and cites reports statewide of crime around dispensaries.

“We need to take action because they’re popping up so quickly,” Mims said. “They create a target for criminals who think they can get money and drugs.”

In the growing legal battle over medical marijuana distribution, more than 200 California cities have approved bans or moratoriums on dispensaries, according to the Oakland-based Americans for Safe Access, which promotes the use of medical marijuana. Nine counties — including Madera and Merced — ban dispensaries, while another 14 counties have moratoriums.

A Web site, WeedMaps.com advertises more than 20 dispensaries operating in the Fresno area. Brenda Linder, an attorney representing four area dispensaries, said approximately 15 are open in unincorporated Fresno County.

Linder said the dispensaries she represents are trying to rescue the operations from the lawless image created by some operators, including Rick Morse, who has been operating a Tower District dispensary in violation of a court order.

She said the four dispensaries have joined together and adopted bylaws to promote safety. They operate during normal business hours, have strong security measures, and don’t have some of the more questionable features of some dispensaries, such as smoking lounges, Linder said.

Linder said she will ask supervisors to allow existing dispensaries to remain in business and approve a moratorium on new ones, while legal issues get ironed out.

California voters approved the use of marijuana for medical purposes in 1996. The Legislature attempted to clarify the law with a bill in 2004 — but many issues remain unresolved.

A California appeals court could help determine the legality of such bans in a case challenging a ban approved by the city of Anaheim in 2007. Officials across the state are eagerly awaiting the court’s decision, which is expected to set the course for how dispensaries fare in California.

A decision is expected by Monday, said Kris Hermes, a spokesman for Americans for Safe Access.

Nothing in the law makes dispensaries legal, Mims said. And public safety risks outweigh any medical benefits, she said.

Complaints by residents in Tarpey Village about dispensaries made the Sheriff’s Office aware of the problem, Mims said.

Then two dispensaries were the scenes of crimes last month, raising her concern about the issue, she added. On June 22, sheriff’s deputies responded to a burglary call at the Evergreen Health Center on North Friant Road. The burglars got away with more than $20,000 worth of cash and marijuana, deputies reported. The business had been open two weeks.

That same week, a man tried to rob the owner of the Herbal Solutions dispensary in a county island on Shaw Avenue, the Sheriff’s Office said.

The suspect pointed a gun at the owner, who was standing behind a security door. The owner escaped into a closet and the suspect fled.

Mims said her office has not examined how much crime has been reported at and around dispensaries. But she said she also is troubled by law-enforcement reports that marijuana grown illegally on public land has been bought by dispensaries.

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