Frustrated and divided on how to deal with the rapid spread of medical marijuana shops, the San Jose City Council may be heading toward banning them outright when it continues the debate Tuesday.
Such a move would be a stark reversal for a council that for the past year and a half has signaled it would welcome a limited number of medical marijuana outfits.
Only four days ago, the council tentatively approved zoning for the clubs, which now number more than 100 in San Jose even though the city doesn't technically consider any of them legal.
But council members were clearly frustrated this week after their third meeting on the matter stretched for four hours without reaching decisions on how many pot clubs there should be and rules governing their operation.
Councilwoman Nancy Pyle has since stated in a memorandum that if the council can't agree on rules -- which, after Tuesday's meeting, seems likely -- it should just ban the clubs altogether.
Mayor Chuck Reed said Friday that he agrees. And Councilman Kansen Chu, who had signaled his distaste for marijuana clubs Tuesday, also issued a memo arguing that the city should prohibit them and let county officials decide on regulations.
"I think it's becoming clear that this is a difficult area to arrive at a reasonable conclusion," Reed said. "Whether or not the votes are there for a ban, I don't know because positions have changed over time. But for me personally, I've reached a
Stephen DeAngelo, executive director of the Harborside Health Center medical marijuana dispensaries in San Jose and Oakland, said he was surprised and disappointed.
"It's deeply distressing to me to hear this," DeAngelo said. "I thought we made a lot of progress. The time has come to stop treating cannabis as something harmful and dirty that needs to be eradicated when thousands in San Jose desperately need this medicine."
A growing number of residents and businesses have called for a ban as unregulated clubs have hung shingles in shopping centers and office parks. A ban would require at least six votes from the mayor and 10 council members.
Several other council members have been critical of the marijuana clubs, which began popping up in San Jose only a couple of years ago. Those officials include Xavier Campos, Sam Liccardo, Pete Constant and Rose Herrera.
"I'm supporting a ban," said Herrera, who had originally called for one back in December.
As a compromise Tuesday, Herrera had suggested capping the number of clubs at 15. But she said Friday that she'd just as soon prohibit them. She cited public safety concerns about outfits she says seem to be drug stores serving the not-so-sick.
But Councilman Pierluigi Oliverio, whose October 2009 proposal to permit and tax a limited number of marijuana dispensaries touched off the debate, said a ban will backfire and continue the current chaos of unregulated clubs spreading across the city while cops and bureaucrats try to close them.
"It's too little too late," Oliverio said. "If the council wanted to ban them, it should have done that in October 2009. Our inaction led to the current issue. If the council did that now, it's not going to go away. You're going to have lawsuits."
DeAngelo said a ban would seemingly thwart the will of voters who in 1996 made California the first state to allow medical marijuana use, even though the drug remains illegal under federal law. In November, San Jose voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure allowing the city to tax marijuana businesses.
"How wrong of our elected representatives to stand in the way of the will of the voters," DeAngelo said. "They will be met with vociferous and persistent resistance from the medical cannabis community."
San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Santa Cruz and other cities have allowed a limited number of medical marijuana dispensaries. But in San Jose, the regulatory debate has been mired over what constitutes a marijuana "collective" as envisioned under Proposition 215, the 1996 initiative, and subsequent state legislation and guidelines.
Reed, Constant, Liccardo and Herrera said they could support what they see as a true collective in which a group of patients join together to produce and share marijuana among themselves. But they say the scores of pot shops proliferating across the city are just marijuana drug stores.
"Many of us support a model that provides for compassionate use," Liccardo said, "but not 'Reefers-R-Us.' "
But dispensary operators and Oliverio said such a model, with no employees or cash transactions, is simply unrealistic.
DeAngelo said his Ringwood Avenue dispensary, in an industrial park off Montague Expressway alongside networking firms, qualifies as a collective because it's a nonprofit where marijuana is provided by a "closed loop" of certified patients who sell their surplus weed so others who can't grow it can buy it. He questioned why patients buying cannabis should be treated differently from those buying aspirin.
But for council members facing daunting decisions on closing a $115 million deficit that will require substantial layoffs, the marijuana matter has become an unwelcome distraction.
"It's fair to say," Liccardo said, "that the council is suffering debate fatigue on this issue."
Contact John Woolfolk at 408-975-9346.