BERKELEY -- The city could add a fourth medical cannabis dispensary by next year, thanks to new regulations drafted by the Medical Marijuana Commission and approved in concept by the City Council on Tuesday. The council will formalize its revisions to local laws regulating medical cannabis distribution July 1.
In addition to setting guidelines for new dispensary selection, the council agreed to allow ingestion of medical marijuana at dispensaries and not to require bars on dispensary windows.
MCC Commissioner Charlie Pappas told the council the commission reluctantly accepted the staff recommendation of a four-dispensary limit. There are currently three in operation.
A poet, former community organizer and a quadriplegic, Pappas uses medical marijuana for severe muscle spasms.
"Patients would benefit from more competition," he said in an interview Thursday.
With six dispensaries, people would have a greater choice of product, prices might be lower, and competition might encourage dispensaries to address patient needs, rather than being run strictly on a business model, he said.
Staff noted in reports that because it is difficult to find acceptable locations in commercial zones -- they may not be sited near schools -- allowing six dispensaries could necessitate changing zoning laws, possibly permitting them in manufacturing districts.
The Planning Commission would have to address that issue.
"Just having four dispensaries means a significant majority of all the cannabis distribution in Berkeley will remain outside of the dispensaries," Councilman Kriss Worthington said at the meeting. "If we really believe in legalization and taxation, then it's far more logical to increase the number of dispensaries."
In 2014, the three Berkeley dispensaries are projected to bring in more than $600,000 in local tax revenue.
Much of the local legal cannabis production and distribution takes place in collectives that the proposed ordinance defines as a "collective of persons comprised exclusively and entirely of qualified patients and the primary caregivers of those patients, the purpose of which is to collectively provide for or assist in the cultivation and distribution of medical cannabis to its members."
A collective medical marijuana site must serve primarily as a residence.
Though collectives are supposed to have business licenses and pay taxes on money exchanged for the marijuana products, they usually don't, city attorney Zach Cowen told the council. A collective's existence comes to the city's attention only when there's a complaint, Elizabeth Greene, who staffs the Medical Marijuana Commission, said.
The council considered the impact of the high cost of medical marijuana on low-income people -- an ounce can cost more than $300 -- and decided that dispensaries must allocate 2 percent of the value of their annual product to low-income medical cannabis users.
They addressed the question of ingesting cannabis on site and decided to continue the practice, despite a staff recommendation against this.
"There are some federally-funded buildings like Section 8 public housing ... that would not allow the ingestion of medical marijuana," said Councilman Darryl Moore. "The dispensary then gives them a place to go to ingest their medications without fear of being kicked out of their ... housing."
Conforming to Berkeley's no-smoking laws, new rules continue to prohibit smoking at dispensaries.
City staff called for bars on dispensary windows, but the council balked at the requirement, agreeing with Sean Luce, chief operations officer at Berkeley Patients Group, the city's largest dispensary, that a 24-hour security guard is a valid alternative.
New rules also include mandatory health inspections of edible products made in Berkeley, but not those made outside the city, and 9 p.m. closing hours for dispensaries and collectives.
Councilman Max Anderson said he supported the recommendations because they include a council review of new regulations in one to two years.
"A concern always is: If we make these things too restrictive, we're going to drive people into the illegal market," he said.