There was no shortage of harsh symmetry as Santa Barbara’s City Council voted 6-1 Tuesday afternoon to introduce a tougher, stricter medical marijuana ordinance limiting the total number of pot shops within city boundaries to three. The current ordinance, in place since 2008, has no limit at all. For Nat Reinke and James Lee, owners of the Green Well dispensary — located at 500 North Milpas Street — the new ordinance will all but certainly put them out of business within six months.
Reinke and Lee spent nine months — and $400,000 — going through the city’s review process to open legally, jumping through any and all hoops to meet both the letter and spirit of the law. By all accounts, they’ve run a tight ship since opening for business January 5. In deference to school district concerns that older teens might return to campus eager to share their filled prescription vials, Reinke and Lee voluntarily agreed not to sell to anyone younger than 20 years old. Newcomers to the South Coast, they’ve also reached out aggressively to their neighbors, organizing dispensary members to pick up trash in bimonthly neighborhood cleanups and donating to health clinics. But for all that, it was also the Green Well application that helped ignite the recent groundswell of opposition to dispensaries in the first place.
What started out as a protest from some Eastside residents that Milpas Street was becoming a “dumping ground” for dispensaries — Green Well was the second — has since morphed into a broader coalition of educational, law enforcement, and recovery leaders agitating for a total ban on any storefront dispensaries. Ironically, it would be city hall’s slender majority of pro-dispensary councilmembers, who — in the face of shifting political winds — would toss Green Well under the proverbial bus. It was Councilmember Das Williams — one of the council’s most vocal dispensary supporters — who proposed the ordinance language that now threatens to be Green Well’s undoing. As a sop to school district administrators clamoring for a 1,000-foot gap between dispensaries and schools, Williams proposed increasing the city’s 500-foot buffer requirement — written into city law since 2008 — to 600 feet. Located 532 feet from Santa Barbara Junior High School, Green Well meets the city’s existing buffer requirement, but won’t comply with the new rules.
Reinke said he took pains to secure a lease that met the 500-foot rule, and now finds himself with a four-year obligation on a property he can’t occupy. Under another provision of the ordinance introduced this Tuesday, Green Well will have six months to find new digs and shut down. The new ordinance allows only three dispensaries. Because there’s one already operating on Olive Street and two competing dispensaries — one located on De la Vina Street and another on outer State Street — have already submitted applications with city hall, Reinke expressed pessimism that Green Well has a prayer of relocating successfully. Nor is he inclined to try. “What I’ve learned is that permits are meaningless,” Reinke said. “You can do everything anyone asks, but when the political winds shift, you’ll be hung out to dry.”
Councilmember Grant House cited the Green Well predicament in voting against the new dispensary ordinance, but he was the only councilmember to do so. After 22 meetings in the past year on the subject, most councilmembers — no matter their inclinations on medical marijuana — are anxious to move on. Pro-dispensary and more liberal councilmembers — fearful that marijuana would be used as a wedge issue to take over the council in next November’s election — decided to inoculate themselves politically by placing two dueling ballot initiatives before city voters this November — one allowing up to five dispensaries and one calling for an outright ban.
Councilmember Dale Francisco, who has spearheaded opposition to dispensaries on the grounds that nothing in state or federal law allows the retail sale of medical marijuana, agreed to support an ordinance allowing no more than three dispensaries if the council placed an initiative calling for a total ban on the ballot. Last week, he got the votes for just that. Barring unforeseen complications, the council will cast its final vote on the ordinance next Tuesday. Whatever tactical truce the council achieves, however, will be temporary. As the fall election season approaches, the issue will spark back again.