San Francisco should revisit zoning rules governing medical marijuana

The conversation surrounding medical marijuana dispensaries in San Francisco has wound its way in recent years from “should we?” to “where should we?” to “how much should we?” Now, the discussion is headed back to “where should we?”
The Board of Supervisors needs to formally reopen the topic of where dispensaries can open up in The City and serve their patients to make sure city zoning regulations do not overload the neighborhoods to which they are currently restricted.

In 2005, city zoning regulations were drafted to allow dispensaries only in locations 1,000 feet or more from schools, recreation facilities and other buildings housing youth services. This city buffer zone exceeds the 600-foot distance that exists under state guidelines.

In creating these wide buffer zones around youth facilities in this densely populated city, officials prevented medical marijuana facilities from opening in the vast majority of San Francisco. The allowable areas are called “green zones,” and it is estimated that they comprise just 10 percent of The City’s surface area.

Another factor limiting where dispensaries can locate is the challenge of finding landlords willing to lease to them. This has become a particular issue in the wake of U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag’s overzealous targeting of medical marijuana dispensaries — and the landlords who lease to them — in the past few years.

The collision of these two trends has resulted in a clustering of dispensaries in a handful of San Francisco neighborhoods.

The issue came to a head a few weeks ago during a Planning Commission hearing at which Supervisor John Avalos was presenting legislation that would have banned any pot dispensaries from opening within 500 feet of each other in a section of the Outer Mission.

There is frustration on all sides of the debate. Most San Franciscans have made it clear that they support the presence of medical marijuana dispensaries within The City. Yet neighbors are understandably weary of having too many of these businesses line any one commercial corridor. Industry advocates decry any new regulations that would limit the areas in which clubs can locate.

Avalos’ legislation, which has since been altered to propose a hearing for any new pot club that wants to open within 500 feet of an existing dispensary, makes some sense. But the solutions for this zoning problem should not come piecemeal.

Squeezing clubs out of one area will just force them into others, where they could be limited again. The end result would likely be a cycle of expanded rules without an eye toward any larger goal.

Avalos told The San Francisco Examiner that he will reopen the topic of the zoning regulations that pertain to green zones. The Board of Supervisors needs to fully study the rules and community needs surrounding medical marijuana dispensaries. The City’s existing zoning guidelines clearly are not working.

Monday’s ruling by the California Supreme Court may make this matter even more urgent. The court ruled — appropriately, given the state of California’s inadequate laws governing medical marijuana — that cities and counties have the right to ban dispensaries. If nearby cities or counties exercise their rights under this ruling, it could fuel an increase in San Francisco within the near future.

The tricky task ahead for city officials is finding that delicate balance between allowing the dispensaries needed to serve patients while not overcrowding any one neighborhood.

editorialsJohn Avalosmedical marijuanaOpinion