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SF may temporarily block new medical cannabis dispensaries from opening

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A Board of Supervisors committee will vote on a temporary ban on medical cannabis dispensaries today. (Jessica Christian/2016 S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco’s decision whether to stunt the growth of the cannabis industry by enacting an interim moratorium comes to a head today.

The Board of Supervisors Land Use and Transportation Committee is scheduled to vote this afternoon on Supervisor Malia Cohen’s legislation to enact a 45-day moratorium on the issuance of permits for medical cannabis dispensaries (MCDs). The length of the moratorium could be extended with subsequent board votes for up to two years.

The proposed moratorium comes as voter-approved legalized recreational marijuana will go into effect Jan. 1 and as The City is crafting regulations for recreational use. Those regulations are expected to create a process for medical cannabis dispensaries to also sell recreational marijuana.

The committee is scheduled to vote to send it to the full board for a vote the next day, on Tuesday, where it would take at least nine votes of the 11-member board to approve.

Cohen has argued The City needs to “pause” to craft better regulations and figure out the process for MCDs to convert to recreational sales first.

The proposal faces significant opposition, such as from state Sen. Scott Wiener (a former supervisor), the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, the San Francisco Council of District Merchants Associations and those dispensaries pending permit applications.

One possible political compromise being discussed is an exemption for permit applicants in the pipeline, but no deal had been reached as of Friday. The Planning Commission said Friday there are 27 applicants currently in the pipeline either under review, pending review or on hold.

Some have argued that a moratorium even with that exemption is the wrong approach to take and sends the wrong message.

“I’m still working out the details,” Cohen texted the San Francisco Examiner at 5 p.m. Friday. City planning staff recommended the moratorium in July.

Jim Lazarus, the Chamber of Commmerce’s senior vice president of public policy, sent an Aug. 31 letter to the Board of Supervisors and Mayor Ed Lee opposing the moratorium. He praised the cannabis industry as an economic driver “producing new jobs as well as tax revenues that will support public infrastructure, social services and civic programs.”

“We should be doing everything we can to continue the momentum of this growing industry. A moratorium on approval of MCDs, which may extend beyond 45 days, is unnecessary, and could set The City back in its efforts to establish protocols and oversight of the cannabis industry here in San Francisco,” Lazarus wrote.

Wiener said San Francisco’s leadership on cannabis is vital to the issue since The City was a pioneer in the medical marijuana movement and warned that a moratorium “will send a terrible message statewide and undermine our efforts in the Legislature.”

“Our leadership has continued for decades, but if San Francisco places a ban — even a temporary one — on medical cannabis dispensaries, other communities that are far more averse to cannabis will follow our lead, thus undermining the progress we have made,” Wiener wrote in an Aug. 22 letter to the Board of Supervisors.

He added, “San Francisco can adopt smart regulation of cannabis without enacting a moratorium.”

The Small Business Commission took the more nuanced position of supporting the interim moratorium but only if applicants already in the pipeline can have their permit application hearings proceed before the Planning Commission.

Medical marijuana dispensary operators who have long been waiting for permit approvals by the Planning Commission are opposed to the moratorium.

The San Francisco Cannabis Retail Alliance, a collection of dispensaries including The Apothecarium, BASA, Cookies and the Vapor Room, wrote a letter against the moratorium proposal.

“A moratorium will only harm patients, reducing access for the thousands of San Franciscans — many of them suffering from MS, PTSD, chronic pain, or HIV — who depend on medical cannabis,” the alliance’s Aug. 11 letter to the Planning Commission reads. “A moratorium will also exacerbate equity and diversity concerns, undermining our shared goals. Existing MCD operators and applicants with extensive financial resources will survive a moratorium. But small MCD applicants, many of whom are San Francisco locals with limited means, cannot shoulder protracted carrying and lease costs and will be seriously jeopardized.”

Securing nine votes at the board is a tall order for controversial issues. The last time the board voted on a moratorium was in 2015 on whether to prohibit the construction of market-rate housing in the Mission. That proposal was defeated in a 7-4 vote despite hours of testimony from supporters.

Editor’s note: The photo caption of this story has been corrected to clarify that a board committee, and not the full Board of Supervisors, will vote on the moratorium today.

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