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City cannabis industry could be affected by federal intervention

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Berkeley Patients Group, located on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley, is one of the city's three licensed medical cannabis dispensaries.


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FEBRUARY 15, 2012

Medical cannabis is viewed as both a burgeoning industry and a cause of judicial contention for many people in California and across the country. In Berkeley, federal intervention is beginning to affect the city’s small — but growing — medical cannabis industry.

In recent months, the U.S. Department of Justice has cracked down on medical marijuana in California, saying that many of the dispensaries and cultivators operating within the state’s legal guidelines are actually violating federal law.

According to a Feb. 8 letter sent to Representative Nancy Pelosi from California NORML Director Dale Gieringer, the U.S. Attorney sent a letter to the Berkeley Patients Group — a local dispensary that has been operating in the city since 2000 — indicating that Berkeley may now need to contend with federal medical cannabis.

The letter warned the dispensary that it was in violation of a federal law that stipulates that dispensaries cannot be located within 1,000 feet of schools and playgrounds, even though California law only requires a 600-foot distance between schools and dispensaries.

Berkeley Unified School District spokesperson Mark Coplan said he is not aware of any medical marijuana dispensaries in close proximity to any of the district’s schools and that they are not a concern for the district at present.

“There’s a constant tension between the state, local and federal government as they regulate medical marijuana,” said Berkeley City Councilmember Max Anderson. “That’s a tension that is not likely to go away anytime soon.”

The Berkeley Patients Group could not be reached for comment, but according to its website, the dispensary “operates in strict compliance with the letter and the spirit of California’s medical cannabis laws.”

Prior to the federal crackdown on medical cannabis, Berkeley voters passed several ballot measures expanding the city’s medical cannabis regulations for local collectives and the three existing dispensaries in Berkeley. These regulations allowed for the expansion of Berkeley’s medical cannabis industry, as opposed to the limits now being imposed by federal standards.

In 2008, Berkeley voters approved Measure JJ, which allows a patient or primary caregiver to possess and grow unlimited amounts of marijuana, provided that only 10 or fewer of the plants are visible from other properties. The measure also lifted limits for cannabis collectives, provided they possess only a “reasonable quantity.”

In November 2010, Berkeley voters approved ballot Measures S and T. While Measure S structured the taxation of medical cannabis in Berkeley, Measure T permitted six new 30,000-square-foot cultivation sites to open in West Berkeley, as well as a fourth dispensary, which has not yet been identified. Measure T also called for the reinstatement of the city’s medical marijuana commission.

“It’s not as much a big economic element for us as it is a social benefit,” Anderson said. “It’s an effort to provide medical cannabis to those who need it and have a doctor’s prescription.”

Adelyn Baxter is the lead city government reporter.

FEBRUARY 16, 2012