Despite a Good Housekeeping seal of approval from the Santa Barbara Police Department, glowing accolades from a host of medical professionals, positive testimonials from neighboring businesses, passionate support from countless customers, and an undeniably tight PowerPoint presentation, the Compassion Center medical marijuana dispensary — located at 2915 De la Vina Street — was shot down in its appeal to the Planning Commission last week by a vote of 4-2. Translated, that means the oldest — and, in the words of one commissioner, “most professionally run” — dispensary in Santa Barbara will have to take its case to the City Council in the next few months if it hopes to stay in business. Boding ill for Compassion Center, in business at various locations since 2000, a clear majority of the current council takes a dim view of medical marijuana dispensaries in general.
By most reckonings, Compassion Center has kept its nose clean and, aside from the theft of 50 pounds of pot from an off-site storage facility, has run a tight ship. Its owner, Patrick Fourmy, boasts that his is the only dispensary in California to provide licensed nurses trained in the medical aspects of cannabis. He’s made a point to focus on a more mature market demographic, older patients with more medical needs than clients seeking a legal buzz for what he’s termed “tattoo parlor” pot shops. But none of that matters right now. Because the Compassion Center predates either of the city’s two ordinances, it was designated a “legal nonconforming” operation, meaning it would be given three years to comply with city dispensary laws or go out of business.
Two years ago, City Attorney Steve Wiley decreed that any of the legal nonconforming pot shops that had ceased operations for 30 days or more ceased to enjoy that legal status and had to shut down immediately. Based on two inspections of highly indeterminate rigor, Wiley determined that Compassion Center had shut down for a period of 30 days or more between November 2009 and January 2010. Fourmy has vehemently denied this assertion. He said he moved his operation to the back of his De la Vina property and briefly installed a music store in the front in response to threats from the U.S. Attorney General to prosecute medical pot shops and go after the landlords who rent to them. This did-so/did-not dispute is now the subject of litigation between Fourmy and City Hall.
Before voting, nearly every member of the Planning Commission expressed frustration over the lack of solid information to buttress the position of either side. When it became evident that city planners had no idea whether their inspectors got out of their car, walked around the property, or even knocked on the doors when inspecting the Compassion Center premises, Commissioner Michael Jordan expressed frustration, saying, “We don’t know,” adding, “I certainly hope if it goes to litigation that’s not the full answer.” But Jordan also faulted Fourmy for not providing City Hall the payroll records or sales receipts that would have effectively rebutted the city’s claims. Fourmy’s attorney Gilbert Gaynor argued that absent a subpoena, such demands for information violated the right to privacy the dispensary’s customers had a right to expect. Besides, he argued, the burden of proof falls upon City Hall to provide evidence proving its case, not the other way around.
Commissioner Stella Larson, a former health professional, said patient confidentiality was paramount and expressed outrage that Fourmy would ask his customers to make public statements on his behalf — thereby exposing personal details of their treatment — when he could have made the problem go away by releasing utility bill receipts. “I am chapped,” Larson declared. “This isn’t professional. I can’t support you.” Assistant City Attorney Scott Vincent explained that utility bills by themselves would probably not suffice. He added that Fourmy had provided some documentation, only that it was not sufficient to disprove the inspectors. Fourmy insists he has the documentation sought and has indicated he will provide it to members of the City Council. The two commissioners supporting him were Sheila Lodge and Deborah Schwartz. The four opposed were John Jostes, Charmane Jacobs, Michael Jordan, and Stella Larson.