By James Egan, M.D.
Special to the Herald
In Sunday’s Herald, I mined the information in the Benicia Town Hall cannabis survey to reach the conclusion that a large majority of those responding did not favor retail distribution of recreational cannabis outside of the Industrial Park. While on the topic of the survey, it is worthwhile to look at some of the other raw data with respect to how the Council has handled our opinions in requesting the proposed ordinance. Have they been honored or ignored?
1. Question 4: dispensary buffer zone around schools. A supermajority of 67 percent favored stricter regulations (“e.g. 1,000 feet from schools”) than state law requires.
–Ordinance reads: 600 feet.
2. Question 5: dispensary buffer zones around parks. A supermajority of 69 percent favored a 500-foot buffer zone.
–Ordinance reads: No buffer zone.
3. Question 8: Should the City allow outdoor cannabis cultivation for personal use on private property? “No”, or “only if screened (i.e. in a greenhouse)” 53 percent. Ordinance reads: Yes, no screening required.
In her Jan. 25 e-alert, Mayor Elizabeth Patterson, responding to an impassioned anti-cannabis letter from Denise Lee, notes that “The political world is made up of bullies, bystanders and bravehearts.” Regarding the cannabis ordinance, the majority of the council and the mayor appear to have cast themselves in the role of bullies. All signs suggest that the council will approve the cannabis ordinance at tonight’s meeting despite their awareness that a large proportion of the community opposes it. Is this right? No. The code changes outlined in the cannabis ordinance have the potential to fundamentally alter the face and spirit of our community. Granted, even in a democracy our elected leaders cannot be expected to vote according to their constituents’ preferences on every issue, but on issues of major importance, such as this one, the will of the people should not be subjugated by the governing body.
What price might we and the council pay for their potential failure to accurately assess and wisely respond to the expressed opinions of the community on cannabis? Answering this are two cautionary tales from Marin and Stanislaus counties.
Nearly 70 percent of Marin voters favored Proposition 64, a greater margin than Benicia’s 63 percent support. Following almost two years of rule-making and application processes, including many public hearings, the Marin County Supervisors passed an ordinance allowing up to four medicinal dispensaries on unincorporated land. But, quoting the San Francisco Chronicle, “It turns out that many residents are fine with the idea of cannabis capitalism, as long as it isn’t happening in their backyard.” Ten subsequent applications for licenses to operate dispensaries were subsequently turned down because of public opposition. The Assistant Director of the county’s Community Development Agency, Tom Lai, described a “near frenzy” of opposition, including petitions with hundreds of signatures opposing dispensaries in their neighborhoods due to being too close to homes, schools or passing children or simply incompatible with neighborhoods. Per the Chronicle, citing Lai, “No area was low-profile enough.”
Devaluation of real estate values was also an issue. Subsequently, the Supervisors repealed the 2015 ordinance allowing the dispensaries, and now “the county is guaranteed to be almost totally devoid of marijuana shops for the foreseeable future.”
The Stanislaus County story is worse. As reported in an Associated Press article by Paul Elias, having collected taxes from legal marijuana growers since 2016, the Board of Supervisors recently voted to ban marijuana in the county after the election of four new Supervisors who ran on anti-marijuana platforms. Two hundred farmers with permits that cost them $5,000 each were given three months to terminate operations. The County Sheriff estimated that in addition to the 200 licensed cultivators more than 1,000 farms operated illegally in the county.
Quoting Mr. Elias “The influx has cause a backlash among residents and led to the ouster of some leaders who approved marijuana cultivation. Ban proponents complained that a sudden influx of new marijuana growers dramatically changed the regions makeup and damaged the environment.” The action by the Council is believed to have “paved the way” for lawsuits from growers who previously received permits and paid taxes.
These, then, may be the fruits of proceeding with pro-marijuana ordinances while a major portion of the community remains in opposition. Years of futile hearings, organized resistance to proposed locations, division of the community, deposition of elected officials, and civic litigation potentially amounting to millions of dollars.
Could this happen here? If the council approves the current marijuana ordinance they will give birth to large group of angry, disenfranchised voters, who may be expected to respond actively to their marginalization. Once the permitting process begins, look for lobbying of residents, retail property managers and property owners to disallow retail cannabis facilities in or near their homes and retail outlets. The angry will also be voting, and a shift in the council majority on this issue with a one-issue November election could lead to the same adverse circumstances that Stanislaus County finds itself in currently. The mere existence of such a group may act as a deterrent to potential permit applicants.
Like many others, I don’t believe that there has been enough research, deliberation or interaction with the community by the council to proceed with approving the distribution, cultivation or processing of cannabis products in Benicia currently. My hope in responding to Vice Mayor Young’s explanation for his Dec. 19 vote is that he and Councilmember Campbell will get a better idea of the real magnitude of cannabis resistance in the community and that they will respond by regrouping, reversing their recent votes on the cannabis ordinance and joining Councilman Hughes in leading the council to an answer more acceptable to the thousands of concerned citizens and parents who are stakeholders in this issue.
There are many issues associated with residential and commercial cultivation and cannabis processing that the public has not been adequately educated on, including ecological and quality of life concerns that may conflict with the General Plan. These processes merit full vetting by the community after the issue of distribution has been settled, and before their respective ordinances are voted on by the Council.
James Egan is a Benicia resident.