City medical cannabis commission to develop policy guidelines

Anna Vignet/Senior Staff
A man walks by the Berkeley Patients Care Collective, one of the city’s three dispensaries.

At the oft-delayed first meeting of the city’s reconstituted Medical Cannabis Commission Thursday, commission members made it clear they plan to develop guidelines for local medical marijuana policies in the interest of cannabis patients, despite unfavorable signals regarding marijuana from the federal government.

The commission is charged with establishing a recommended process for implementing Measure T — a ballot initiative approved by Berkeley voters last November that allows for the creation of seven new “cannabusinesses” as well as the reform of the commission itself. For months, the commission’s first meeting has been pushed back as it waited for all nine members to be appointed.

Recently, a strongly worded U.S. Department of Justice letter, coupled with a decision from the Drug Enforcement Agency, has hardened the federal stance against marijuana. But commission chair Dan Rush, speaking in his personal capacity and not on behalf of the commission, said he does not see a conflict with the commission because it serves to educate and guide the Berkeley City Council on medical cannabis policies — the commission itself is not a legislative body.

Rather, Rush said his goal is to move toward a “patient-safe industry that is controlled, taxed and regulated.”

“The number-one component of all of it is safe patient access,” Rush said. “That’s the whole goal — to arrive at safe patient access in a safe, dignified, sincere and compliant industry for the city of Berkeley.”

The June 29 department memo, addressed to U.S. Attorneys, warned that those who are “in the business” of cultivation, sale or distribution of marijuana violate the Controlled Substances Act, “regardless of state law.”

Furthermore, in a decision announced July 8, the DEA ruled that marijuana has no accepted medical use and must remain classified as a highly dangerous drug like heroin, despite numerous studies attesting to the medical benefits of cannabis.

Most recently, patients’ advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, with the Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis — an association of medical marijuana patients, public interest groups and other supporters — appealed that decision July 21.

“We don’t know what the memo means,” said Councilmember Jesse Arreguin. “It raises a concern that we should keep in the back of our mind, but it doesn’t mean we should stop everything … the situation is still in flux.”

At the meeting, the commission identified several key areas it plans to focus on. Among those are dispensaries, cultivation of medical marijuana, processing — which encompasses other forms of cannabis consumption outside of smoking, including edibles and topical lotions — and the creation of committees to address specific topics, such as compliance with local ordinances and state and federal law.

In general, Rush said he would like to see the commission move toward creating a “compliant, healthy, dignified and sincere” medical cannabis industry that generates tax revenue, jobs and safe patient access for the city.

“The cannabis industry doesn’t have to be divisive and antagonistic or operate in the shadows or be the subject of constant drama and implication,” he said.

The nine-member commission will have to determine guidelines for licensing a fourth dispensary as well as six new cultivation centers — each of which are capped at 30,000 square feet —  allowed for in the measure.

“(The fourth dispensary) should be more like a cooperative,” said Councilmember Gordon Wozniak. “It should avoid growing and selling. Otherwise it would be a … monopoly.”

As the commission moves forward, Councilmember Kriss Worthington said he hopes it is able to make progress on the issues within a reasonable time frame.

“I’m hopeful,” he said. “I think there’s some very talented people on the commission … I think all of them really care, and I hope all of them will work together to put together some very practical proposals.”

J.D. Morris is an assistant news editor.