Sacramento has become a boomtown over the past year for medical marijuana dispensaries, but the influx of businesses may not be a boon to medical marijuana patients or the city in general.

“We don’t want Sacramento to become like Los Angeles,” which has been overwhelmed by a rampant proliferation of medical marijuana operations, said Don Johnson, director of Unity Non-Profit Collective, a dispensary with 3,100 members that opened in March 2009.

The collective, located in an industrial park off Tribute Road, sells only marijuana that is cultivated by its members and, unlike many other businesses of its ilk, scrupulously follows the state Attorney General guidelines regulating the industry, Johnson said.

Johnson eagerly welcomes regulation. He would like the city to enforce the moratorium that it passed last summer, which prohibits the establishment of new dispensaries and outlaws the expansion and relocation of existing ones. The City Council should renew the moratorium when it expires in June, he said. Enforcing the moratorium would aid law enforcement, stamp out derelict operations and curtail illegal drug dealing, he argued.

What’s more, Johnson is calling on the City Council to approve an ordinance in draft form that would regulate the location and operation of the clubs. The proposed ordinance currently includes zoning limitations, keeping the businesses away from schools, parks, drug rehabilitation centers and other areas, and would impose a cap on the number of clubs at 12.

Currently, there are 39 dispensaries registered with the city of Sacramento, and the draft ordinance proposes a lottery to determine which 12 get to remain in business.

Johnson and others say Sacramento should be proactive about regulating the local dispensaries, lest the city become a hotbed of rogue clubs on par with Los Angeles.

In an effort to belatedly quell the chaos, in April the Los Angeles City Council ordered the closure of hundreds of pot clubs as of June. Only 137 will be allowed to remain in business. Consequently, Los Angeles faces an expensive backlash in the form of lawsuits from perhaps dozens of dispensaries forced to shutter.

Approximately 35 California cities, including Redding, Placerville, Citrus Heights, and Oakland, have approved ordinances regulating medical marijuana dispensaries, according to Americans for Safe Access, a nationwide medical marijuana advocacy group. Ninety-six cities in the state have passed moratoriums to date and 129 have banned the dispensaries outright, the group said.

In recent months, Johnson said, dispensaries have swarmed into Sacramento and have hung up their proverbial shingle while flaunting state and local laws and guidelines. The prospect of the cap has spurred a race among dispensaries to set up shop and make as much money as possible before being shut down.

Following state law, Johnson charges sales taxes at his dispensary, but patients have told him that other dispensaries in town do not. He has also heard that other clubs are not requiring recommendations from doctors.

As a result of shoddy practices, standards are lowered and medical marijuana patients suffer, Johnson said. He added that Unity tests all of its marijuana for active ingredients, pathogenic molds and other toxins to ensure it is safe for patients. Patients are recommended marijuana for a wide range of ailments, from insomnia to chronic pain to cancer.

Beyond his concern for the integrity of medical treatment with cannabis, Johnson admits that his competitors who don’t play by the rules have affected his bottom line.

“We simply can’t compete with operations that cut corners,” Johnson said.

Johnson said that, partly due to the political influence of many dispensaries, the City Council is not motivated to regulate the industry-especially not until after the June 8 primary election, if not the Nov. 2 general election.

“Nobody wants to take the bull by the horns,” he said. “The issue needs to be addressed and not passed off for another year. City leadership is needed now.”

The Sacramento chapter of the ACLU expressed concern about limitations on the number of dispensaries, arguing the draft ordinance, as written, would “frustrate” the needs of medical marijuana patients and their caregivers.

Councilmember Steve Cohn, who represents District 3, said he is not concerned about a prevalence of dispensaries in areas like Central City, which encompasses Midtown and Downtown.

“Medical marijuana patients rely on (public) transit,” he said, making it difficult for those people to visit far-flung strip malls and other outlying locations. If a cap on the number of dispensaries is eventually approved by the City Council, Cohn said, the council should devise a special use permit that would provide an exception to the 500-foot zoning rule and allow more of the businesses to locate in Central City.

With this kind of waiver, Cohn envisions the total number of dispensaries in the city exceeding 12. However, Cohn said he would not want the dispensaries in Central City to be located right next to one another. “There are limits,” he said.

He said the earliest the City Council would take up the ordinance would be this summer.

Law enforcement groups such as the California Police Chiefs Association have cited increased crime near marijuana dispensaries.

Anita Gore, spokeswoman for the state Board of Equalization, said the agency collects annually between $58 million and $105 million in taxes on the sale of medical marijuana statewide. Gore explained the agency can’t proffer an exact figure because many dispensaries don’t register as dispensaries as such – they call themselves pharmaceutical sellers or health food stores, for example.

The recession has reinvigorated the cause of legalizing marijuana altogether, with proponents arguing that cash-starved state and local governments deserve to reap the riches of the industry through taxes. There is a marijuana legalization initiative on the November statewide ballot, and San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano has proposed complementary legislation, set to be heard in an assembly committee this fall.

L.C. Linden can be reached by contacting the editor at