While many other California cities limit or outlaw medical marijuana dispensaries, Berkeley is allowing an expansion.
The city will license a new dispensary by 2015, bringing the total number of legitimate pot shops in Berkeley to four. The city council voted to allow the new shop at a meeting June 17.
That vote was preliminary, and the council will vote again on the issue July 1. Council members also voted on other MMJ regulations, re-approving a rule allowing the use of cannabis at dispensaries and rejecting a rule requiring that pot shops bar their windows.
The council also imposed mandatory testing of edibles made in Berkeley – but not elsewhere – and set a 9 p.m. closing time for dispensaries.
Some Council Members Wanted More Shops
The city’s Medical Marijuana Commission drafted the new rules. Commissioner Charlie Pappas said the panel wanted to add more dispensaries but reluctantly went along with recommendations by city staff to cap the number at four.
Six pot shops would provide greater competition, Pappas said, leading to lower prices, better choice, and a greater focus on patient needs. But city staff said that would require changes to Berkeley’s zoning code and a vote by the planning commission.
That’s because the shops may only be located in commercial districts, and those are limited, according to the city. Dispensaries are not allowed near schools or parks.
“Patients would benefit from more competition,” Pappas said.
Pot Shops Make Money for City
Some council members agreed.
“Just having four dispensaries means a significant majority of all the cannabis distribution in Berkeley will remain outside of the dispensaries,” said Council Member Kriss Worthington. “If we really believe in legalization and taxation, then it’s far more logical to increase the number of dispensaries.”
The city’s three dispensaries are expected to generate more than $600,000 in local tax revenue this year. Berkeley already imposes relatively tight regulations on legal shops, requiring they be composed only of qualified patients and their primary caregivers.
Dispensaries also must dedicate 2 percent of the value of the product they sell each year to subsidizing low-income patients. Council members noted that an ounce of weed can cost $300 or more, too much for many struggling people.
Patients Can Still Use at Dispensaries
Patients will still be allowed to use cannabis on dispensary property, even though staff recommended council members end the practice. Some council members said residential no-weed policies leave patients with few places to use the drug.
“There are some federally funded buildings like Section 8 public housing . . . that would not allow the ingestion of medical marijuana,” said Council Member Darryl Moore. “The dispensary then gives them a place to go to ingest their medications without fear of being kicked out of their . . . housing.”
But council members voted to continue applying a citywide smoking ban to pot shops.
The city’s many illicit dispensaries operate under the radar and only come to attention of officials when complaints are filed. They’re supposed to pay taxes, but most don’t, said City Attorney Zach Cowen.
The city council approved the new rules in part because council members worried patients might eventually turn to the black market if regulations are too tight. Berkeley has long been relatively friendly, if cautious, toward the MMJ industry.
“A concern always is, if we make these things too restrictive, we’re going to drive people into the illegal market,” said Council Member Max Anderson.