Marijuana dropped from county of Marin smoking ban

Marin’s war on smoking was blunted Tuesday as a measure cracking down on tobacco and other “weed” was sent back for revision to make clear the crackdown does not include marijuana. Although supervisors were in agreement with the policy when county staff last month asserted an ordinance outlawing smoking in unincorporated-area apartments included marijuana and other herbs as well as tobacco, the county board Tuesday abruptly called for revisions making clear tobacco was the only weed at issue.

The move came at the urging of Supervisor Kate Sears, who called for changes in ordinance language defining smoking as puffing “tobacco, weed, spices, herbal or other plant life” to make clear only tobacco products were involved. Asked later why she wanted to make it clear marijuana smoking was not covered by the measure, she said, “we’ve already got laws outlawing that.” Assistant County Counsel Jack Govi, who asked if he should develop language that also gave officials the option of outlawing pot smoking in apartments and condos, was told by board chairman Steve Kinsey to work with “interested board members” on the matter.

Supervisor Susan Adams, a nurse, expressed concern about those who inhale second-hand marijuana smoke, as well as about condo owners “who bought their units (with) a different set of rules,” but noted she supported the intent of the smoking measure. Officials at first tried to slide the ordinance through, seeking agreement that only a clerical “clarification” was needed, but realized as discussion progressed that the substantial change legally required them to go back to square one, make revisions, seek a first reading or tentative approval of the plan, and then schedule another public hearing on the merits before adopting the program. Govi warned that the ordinance as written created an opening for court challenges from people who might be disturbed by pot smoke. “If you don’t make the clarification, marijuana smoke would be illegal,” he said.

County health chief Larry Meredith, calling smoking “the number one cause of premature death,” said the measure was essential for the public welfare. The county law, modeled on a strict anti-smoking measure in Larkspur, outlaws smoking in private indoor spaces including balconies, carports, decks and common areas; requires landlords to set up “smoking permitted” areas; requires existing apartment complexes to be 80 percent smoke free and new complexes to be smoke free. Landlords and condominium boards could seek exemptions for up to 20 percent of units, which would then be grouped in a “smoking section.”

Many landlords support such legislation because it curbs complaints, cuts costs and reduces liability. Most who spoke Tuesday offered whole-hearted support. The law would be enforced by county health officials and violators could be fined $100 and/or five days of community service. A second violation would generate a $300 fine and/or 10 days of service, and a third violation within one year, $700 and/or 15 days of community service. A parade of people rose to support the proposal, including Michael Vaughan of Larkspur. “This is not a social engineering situation,” he said. “It’s a public health problem.”

“Part of your job is to protect the citizens,” said Sanford Gossman of San Rafael. “I’m one.” But he noted he lives next to a cigar smoker in San Rafael, which is not covered by the law, and called for countywide rules. But each city must enact its own program. An ordinance in Novato includes similar restrictions but allows half of the units in existing complexes to opt out — and a quarter of units in new developments to do the same. Officials in Tiburon and Fairfax are working on smoking crackdowns. One speaker issued a plea “for the right to breathe,” while another worried the law would forbid the burning of incense that accompanies some religious ceremonies. A public housing tenant urged a ban on smoking in public housing, an issue that will be reviewed by the Housing Authority this year.

Also sent back to the drawing board was an associated county measure officials say is intended to monitor those who sell tobacco to youths. It would require unincorporated-area retailers to obtain a special $25 county license to sell tobacco products. Although it was tentatively approved last year, and was set for adoption Tuesday, lawyers for vendors raised objections county staff said were troubling enough to require revisions. In a related action, the supervisors outlawed smoking on county-owned health facilities. “It’s time for us to discontinue our permission for smokers to be on campus in San Rafael,” health chief Larry Meredith said of the Canal area health complex. At his urging, supervisors broadened the ban to all county health facilities.

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