Illustration by Louise Leong.

The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors will vote next month regarding the regulation of medical marijuana dispensaries in unincorporated areas of the county.

Set for March 15, the vote is considered an important step toward creating guidelines for newer medical marijuana organizations. Earlier this month, the county planning commission proposed the policy, which is intended to increase access to medical marijuana.

The ordinance will enforce an 800-foot distance between dispensaries, disallow them from growing marijuana on site, require them to maintain proof of non-profit status, release the county from liability of violating state or federal law, and prohibit advertising outside of collective or cooperative membership.

While the city of Santa Cruz allows only two dispensaries in its limits, the county is not setting a maximum number of medical marijuana facilities. Instead, it outlines rules to regulate them.

The proposed regulations are intended to address patients’ needs while respecting the community’s feelings about a controversial drug.

District 1 supervisor John Leopold emphasized his hope to see small, localized collectives that can provide for themselves and their members.

The state has defined the legal amount of grown medical marijuana to be 100 square feet of plants, unless otherwise recommended by a physician. Leopold said industrial models considered by cities like Oakland are legally questionable.

“We haven’t defined it any greater than [100 square feet of growing space per person],” Leopold said. “We’re not sure that the law allows that. We’re looking for collective members to grow marijuana for their collective.”

Dispensaries are currently regulated under California state guidelines, which some have called incomplete. There are few entrepreneurial expectations set by the state other than maintaining a non-profit status.

County supervisor Leopold said the lax approach of President Barack Obama’s administration in enforcing the federal prohibition of medical marijuana has allowed for an unprecedented number of medical marijuana facilities to materialize.

To address the potential of an over-concentration of dispensaries, specific distance requirements from other medical marijuana facilities are included in the proposed ordinance. Assistant county planning director Wanda Williams explained the thought process behind this part of the policy.

“By forcing medical marijuana facilities to be 800 feet from each other, more patients will have access throughout the county,” Williams said. “We do not want to see an over-concentration of them.”

Leopold said regulation is necessary to bring the county’s policy up to speed with a rising number of dispensaries. He represents the unincorporated communities of Live Oak, Soquel, the Summit area, Santa Cruz Gardens and Carbonera.

“My sense about it is that it would be better to have order instead of chaos,” Leopold said. “We were basically winking and nodding at businesses that were open. The policy of the county was a head in the sand policy, which said they can’t get permits therefore they can’t open. I felt we needed to come up with some rules.”

District 3 supervisor Neal Coonerty said the county is supportive of medical marijuana patients.

“We want to make sure patients have access to their medicine,” he said.

Many dispensaries welcome regulation, noting the necessity for keeping dispensaries non-profit. While the state of California does require dispensaries to be non-profit, enforcement has proven difficult.

The Women and Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana was the first collective to open in Santa Cruz. WAMM executive director Valerie Corral said she hopes the policy, if enacted, will combat the problem of profiteering.

“Profiteering has become the most important issue rather than serving the sick,” Corral said. “It’s a plant — you don’t have to be a genius to grow it. When you get sick, you become financially compromised as well. What happens to many people who are seriously ill is that they can’t pay the high prices.”

Corral said she would like to see organizations making large profits use the money to subsidize patients who cannot afford their medicine.

Advertising for medical marijuana would be limited under the policy. Some patients hope this would make the price of medicine decrease. While the original text of the ordinance prohibited all advertising, Williams said a change was made to allow internal advertisement.

“Medical marijuana dispensaries can advertise to their cooperative or collective members,” Williams said. “We felt there was no need to advertise to the whole world.”

Leopold said advertising to the general public has negative effects on patients and the community.

“Advertising for medicine has not been a healthy thing for our country,” Leopold said. “Drug companies have to pay for that marketing campaign. I have to pay more for my medications at the pharmacy. It does not help the patient in any way.”

Coonerty, county supervisor, said the ordinance is an attempt to facilitate a positive relationship between cooperative and patient. The government has a responsibility to create harmony between businesses and the neighborhoods they reside in, he said.

“It’s typical in commercial environments that regulation happens,” Coonerty said. “Government comes in and makes sure there is no adverse impact on the community.”