Chico cops revolt against pot ordinance

The medical-marijuana law will allow for two dispensaries, but police say it violates federal law

Last week the Chico Police Officers Association (CPOA) sent a letter to the Chico City Council saying in no uncertain terms that police officers will not recognize the city’s recently adopted ordinance on the cultivation and distribution of medical marijuana.

That ordinance, which was adopted on July 5 and is set to go into place the first week of August, includes the allowance of two dispensaries up to 10,000 square feet in size within the city limits. That provision has been brought to the attention of federal law enforcement, which does not recognize the state’s medical-marijuana law.

Will Clark, CPOA’s special-projects coordinator, points out in the letter that all Chico police officers are required to take an oath prior to their employment with the city, but that oath includes a promise to support both the city charter and the U.S. Constitution. The letter goes on to point out that the city’s municipal code says a function of the Police Department is to “Prevent crime and maintain law and order in the city by enforcing the laws of the United States, the state and the city.”

At a press conference held in front of council chambers on the day the letter was delivered, Clark said, “We are understaffed and this ordinance will only bring more problems to the community.”

It’s not the only letter to the council questioning the ordinance.

A few days before the council approved the ordinance, Mayor Ann Schwab received a letter from U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner, who said he had concerns with it—particularly those relatively large dispensaries. The letter says his office will “vigorously” enforce federal laws against those involved in the manufacturing and distribution of marijuana, even if such activity is permitted under state law.

At that council meeting, Schwab and Councilmen Mark Sorensen and Bob Evans pulled the ordinance from the consent agenda, where it was set to be passed. They all had objected to the size of the dispensaries. The matter was discussed and then passed on a split vote of the council, with Schwab, Sorensen and Evans remaining in opposition.

City Attorney Lori Barker said her office has always been up front with both the council and the public that the ordinance is a land-use issue and may not meet state or federal laws. And in reality, she said, the police do not enforce land-use regulations; that job is up to the city’s code-enforcement officers.

That hasn’t deterred the CPOA, which has been at odds with the council since last fall when the city asked all employee bargaining units, including the police, to take a 5 percent cut in pay, switch health-insurance companies and pay for more of their job benefits.

All but the police union agreed. As a result, the city laid off five officers, and the contract negotiations went to an arbitrator. During those tense days, the CPOA put out postcards featuring the faces of the council members the union saw as against them. A compromise was reached at the beginning of the year and the officers were rehired, but bad blood remained. Some of the targeted council members saw the postcards as wanted posters.

Councilman Jim Walker was angered by the CPOA letter and the press conference.

“I know they have concerns about enforcing federal law,” he said. “I wish they’d had the decency to call me up and say, ‘We have concerns about this.’ I would have given them a sympathetic ear.”

Walker doesn’t disagree with the CPOA’s message, but he doesn’t appreciate its medium.

“They just use poor judgment in the way they go about expressing these things,” he said. “The leaders of the Chico Police Officers Association are playing politics. I’m talking about the leaders, not the department. They are outstanding, but the leadership does them no good.”

Walker noted how during the last month the medical-marijuana issue has evolved statewide, with threats from the federal government putting people, including city staff, at risk of prosecution.

“That was not so evident when we first made the decision, but now it sure is,” he said.

City Manager Dave Burkland said he understands the CPOA concerns.

“In the bigger picture they are just sharing their concerns about their potential involvement,” he said. “But I completely agree with Lori [Barker], as far as the police officers having little involvement here. The police chief or someone from the management group would do the background checks [on those applying to run the dispensaries].”

Burkland said he met with U.S. Attorney Wagner a few weeks ago.

“It was a pretty concerned tenor at the meeting, and you got the feeling that this was not just a casual reminder here,” he said.

“They take it as an insult that we’re adopting an ordinance that allows for 10,000-square-foot dispensaries,” he continued. “In Oakland, they have 400,000-square-foot dispensaries. Wagner said his office was getting a lot of pressure from Washington, D.C., to do something.”

The ordinance is set to go into effect Aug. 4, two days after the next council meeting. At that meeting, the panel has a number of options to consider. It can go ahead and adopt a fee schedule to implement the ordinance, not implement it, repeal it entirely or modify it.