Oakland inched toward a plan to allow industrial-scale production of medical marijuana, sparking a lively debate between supporters and opponents who filled the Public Safety Committee meeting Tuesday evening.

The proposal crafted by City Councilmembers Larry Reid and Rebecca Kaplan would prompt the first major expansion six years after Oakland first authorized the distribution of medical marijuana in dispensaries.

The Committee voted 3-1 in favor of the plan to license large-scale indoor cultivation of medical marijuana generally grown by either small growers or in illicit warehouses. Both are poorly regulated, according to a staff report prepared for Kaplan and Reid.

If approved by the committee and full City Council, four large growers would be permitted in the first year.

Some opponents Tuesday argued that four is too few.

One grower said he embraced regulation but argued that the plan would force medium- and small-scale cultivators to close down, move, or "go back underground into the dark ages."

Others argued that the expansion goes too far, too fast.

The ordinance doesn't yet set a limit on the size of the large cultivators. But it would take 45,000 square feet to produce the 6,000 pounds of cannabis consumed annually through Oakland medical dispensaries, according to Kaplan and Reid's report.

Reid said the plan is only a start.


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Under their plan, the growers would have to be cooperatives, in keeping with California law.

They would also have to pay $5,000 for a permit and a $210,000 regulatory fee. Along with a $60,000 dispensary permit fee, the revenue would be used to pay for the more than $1.2 million Kaplan and Reid estimated will be needed to run the expanded program, including Oakland police, tax auditors and other staff.

The plan also would permit Oakland's four licensed dispensaries to sell to retailers across California.

Those dispensaries generated $28 million in gross sales in 2009.

The Public Safety Committee, however, postponed a proposal to increase the number of dispensaries to six.

Elsewhere, cities have recognized the benefit of regulating and expanding the lucrative industry, which has generated new jobs and businesses.

Berkeley recently took steps toward expanding the city's medical marijuana industry.

The City Council voted to place two proposed laws on the November ballot allowing as many as 11 large-scale medical marijuana producers.

Likewise, Mendocino County upped the limit on outdoor pot farms that have permits from 25 to 99 plants per land parcel.