After initial indications that it might be victorious in an attempt to open a medical marijuana dispensary south of Nipomo, Ethnobotanica suffered a serious legal defeat in SLO County Superior Court.
After a Dec. 5 tentative ruling that appeared to favor Ethnobotanica’s argument that the SLO County supervisors abused their discretion when they denied a minor use permit for a brick-and-mortar dispensary, but SLO Superior Court Judge Barry LaBarbera issued a formal ruling Dec. 15 upholding the supervisors’ decision.
The decision was surprising even to Babak Naficy, a seasoned land-use attorney who represented Ethnobotanica in its case.
“In my experience, it is a very unusual for the court to so completely change its mind on an issue the way the court did here,” Naficy wrote in an email response to questions from New Times. “I have no explanation or idea as to why.”
One of the primary arguments the three-supervisor majority used to vote against approving the dispensary was that its location and its stock of marijuana and cash would make it a target for crime, compromising the safety of residents and that response times from SLO Sheriff’s Office deputies to the location would not be adequate. That was based on testimony from SLO County Sheriff Ian Parkinson, District Attorney Dan Dow, and Santa Maria Police Chief Ralph Martin.
“Based on the above, there is substantial evidence supporting the board’s findings that the combination of the nature of the medical marijuana business and the location of the proposed project would be incompatible with the health, safety, and welfare of persons residing or working in the neighborhood,” LaBarbera wrote.
Those findings differ from the tentative ruling, which questioned how law enforcement officials and the supervisors came to their conclusions. It noted that some of the studies linking marijuana dispensaries to crime, cited by county law enforcement officials as reasons to deny the project, were not included as part of the record before the board.
“In addition, the record references three robberies of dispensary locations, but there is no evidence that such were an increased risk above any cash business,” LaBarbera said during a Dec 5 hearing held after the tentative ruling was handed down.
LaBarbera addressed the issue again in his final Dec. 15 ruling on the case.
“Although there were no empirical studies demonstrating the link between medical marijuana dispensaries and crime, common sense dictates that a business with a large amount of cash on hand along with the nature of the inventory itself could attract a criminal element,” he wrote.
Assistant County Counsel Tim McNulty was less surprised by the difference between the tentative and official final rulings on the case.
“I think the tentative ruling always left open the possibility that the court would find there were legitimate concerns about providing adequate law enforcement services to that part of the county,” McNulty said in an interview with New Times.
Ethnobotanica is still able to appeal the ruling, but had not done so as of Dec. 20.