Auburn moves to shut down surprise downtown pot dispensary

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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One man’s dream of a medical marijuana collective in Downtown Auburn is being challenged by the city of Auburn. Rich Miller, president of Sierra Patient and Caregiver Exchange Inc., opened the collective on Lincoln Way two months ago and closed dispensary operations on Friday after receiving a “cease operation” demand from the city. Miller said the part of the shop selling collective member’s artwork and other non-cannabis products will remain open for now, but he hopes that a court challenge he’s now attempting will eventually allow the dispensary to return. “I’m prepared to spend every last dime I have to fight this – even if it means going to the Supreme Court,” Miller said. In a letter from Assistant City Attorney Michael Cobden, the city cites both an investigative visit by an undercover narcotics agent to the 750 Lincoln Way collective June 29 and comments on the internet on operation of the dispensary as the main evidence it is using to move forward on its demand to shut it down. According to the Cobden letter, the dispensary – which was licensed in April as S & R Blooms and Blossoms and categorized as a variety store and florist shop – is operating in breach of the Auburn Municipal Code. The Auburn City Council voted in April 2006 to prohibit marijuana dispensaries anywhere in the city. But in deference to the 1996 medicinal marijuana measure passed by California voters, the city prescribed non-criminal remedies to deal with any possible breaches. That has resulted in a brewing civil court case that has already moved through a preliminary round, with a Placer County Superior Court judge issuing a temporary restraining order Friday to close the business. Miller said he’ll be seeking a hold on the city actions in his next civil court date Aug. 9. But City Attorney Mike Colantuono said he’s expecting that the restraining order will be changed to a more-binding preliminary injunction. From there, the matter could go to trial in Placer County or to appeals court in Sacramento, he said. On Tuesday, the shop’s front portion containing art and artifacts for sale but no cannabis. When Miller filled in his business license, he said he marked in “variety” and “florist” because there was no box specifying “marijuana dispensary.” A Placer County medicinal marijuana grower, Miller said he had decided to set up a dispensary after becoming a primary caregiver for a 12-year-old relative that he felt would have been taken away by Child Protective Services because of the grow on his rural acreage. Miller said he has worked to help AIDS and cancer patients for more than 20 years and has himself been aided by medicinal marijuana salves in recovering from the effects of serious injuries from an auto accident on Highway 49. A previous rural grow had provided medical marijuana for patients suffering from a variety of diseases and when Miller decided to stop that endeavor, he said many patients were having a hard time finding a replacement dispensary that was close, safe and had high-quality cannabis. Initially, Miller and the Auburn dispensary only provided cannabis to existing members of the cooperative but costs forced the dispensary to open up to what he described as a “closed loop.” About 500 patients are now listed with the dispensary, he said. Auburn Police Chief John Ruffcorn said the city acted on several complaints from residents in moving to close the dispensary down under regulations in its Municipal Code forbidding any from operating within city limits. “We want to make sure all businesses are abiding by city codes, no matter what type,” Ruffcorn said. Court records show that a narcotics agent visited the dispensary on June 29, showed a marijuana patient’s card and was sold an eighth of an ounce of marijuana and provided with a sample cannabis cookie. “We did everything correctly,” Miller said. Miller said that from his perspective, state law should trump city regulations when it comes to allowing medical marijuana patients to band together for a collective. But Colantuono said that appeals court decisions have sided with cities regulating zoning on property within their boundaries. “There are no bars in residential zones and a quarry wouldn’t be allowed to establish itself in Downtown Auburn,” Colantuono said. In court filings, the city also cites the presence of the Auburn Boys & Girls Club, which is located in a building on property near the dispensary on Lincoln Way. Colantuono said that while there are no regulations in the city’s codes regarding proximity of youth clubhouses to a dispensary, it was included because of concerns over potential nearby sales on the black market to youths. Miller said that the Boys & Girls Club proximity shouldn’t be an issue, noting that the city should be more concerned about the presence of two Downtown Auburn bars that are also close to the club. Miller said he had plans to expand the dispensary to create more jobs in the downtown area while beautifying a neighboring vacant lot with a community flower and vegetable garden. Those plans are now on hold, with a possible legal battle looming. As well as seeking a permanent court injunction, the city is asking that Miller be ordered to pay any court costs accrued. But Miller isn’t backing down from his dream. “This would financially ruin me,” Miller said. “I’d lose my home, vehicles, everything.”