Medical marijuana dispensaries are arriving soon. Will Kansas City be ready?

The Kansas City Council is thinking about regulating medical marijuana dispensaries. An ordinance now on the docket would require businesses selling medicinal pot to sell their product at least 750 feet away from schools, daycare centers and churches.

Neighborhood groups will weigh in, as will marijuana merchants. Is 750 feet far enough — or too far? Bars and package liquor stores must stay 300 feet away from schools and churches, in most cases. The proposed ordinance suggests dispensaries are more dangerous than a liquor store.

The council will decide soon, perhaps in July. But the proposal tells us something else important: The medical marijuana era is almost here. Kansas City must step up efforts to make sure the public’s safety and convenience are protected when it becomes available.

There is clear enthusiasm for obtaining a state license to sell medicinal pot. Under current law, the state will issue 24 dispensary licenses in each of Missouri’s eight congressional districts. In the 5th District alone, which includes Kansas City south of the river, 73 applicants have pre-filed for dispensary licenses.

Missouri recently issued its regulations for the marijuana shops: Employees will need special training, for example, and the businesses will have special security rules. “Dispensary facilities shall not disburse medical marijuana as part of a promotional event,” the regulations say, apparently ruling out free samples on the sidewalk.

But what about additional rules in Kansas City? Operating distance from schools and churches is just one question to be answered. Will the city regulate hours of operation for medical marijuana dispensaries? Will it seek added supervision of workers in the stores, similar to the “employee liquor permit” now used in some circumstances?

Liquor licenses are subject to neighborhood review and comment in Kansas City. Neighborhood groups could seek a similar process for dispensaries: Under current zoning rules, city officials say, five or six medical marijuana shops could operate on the same block. Some may find that objectionable.

Some cannabis advocates reject the comparison between marijuana shops and liquor stores. Kansas Citians, though, deserve a chance to make that determination for themselves.

How about smell? North Kansas City passed an ordinance earlier this year requiring dispensaries to install ventilation “that will prevent any odor of marijuana from leaving the premises.” The smell of marijuana wafting through the air could be an issue in Kansas City.

Missouri law also contemplates “cultivation facilities” for marijuana and “medical marijuana-infused manufacturing facilities.” Kansas City may think about regulating those businesses as well.

State law may limit the city’s ability to act. But officials believe there is leeway to tailor regulations to the unique concerns in a community, and Kansas City must make sure the medical marijuana business is safe and convenient for everyone who lives here.

City Hall and the police department are working on a package of marijuana-related ordinances and regulations, and a meeting to discuss that work is set for this week. The effort should accelerate, now that the arrival of marijuana is imminent. There is little time to waste. Other cities have already figured this out.

“I felt as if it was in the best interest of the people of our city to push the decision-makers to be proactive,” said City Council member Jermaine Reed, who sponsored the 750-foot distance proposal now on the docket.

The first dispensaries likely won’t open until December or later. But now is the time for these questions to be addressed. The city’s full regulatory scheme for medical marijuana should be on the table within the next 60 days so that the public can decide if its health and safety will be protected once medical marijuana goes on sale.