Drama at the dais

Following passionate public comment, Oroville council votes to move forward on commercial cannabis

Faith Henderson addresses the council.

Faith Henderson addresses the council.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

Tuesday night’s meeting of the Oroville City Council can only be described as surreal. With a half dozen pastors, a self-proclaimed prophet and “the devil” among the several dozen people who took to the podium to address the panel, it was almost as if the crowd had been afflicted with the almighty Reefer Madness.

Before the council was a decision on whether to direct staff to further study the feasibility of allowing “seed-to-sale” commercialization of cannabis within city limits, as well as the drafting of an ordinance to allow just that. In addition was the potential rezoning of certain areas to allow such uses, plus the drafting of a tax initiative to be put to a public vote.

After nearly three hours of public comment and a lengthy—and contentious—discussion by council members, including an outburst by the mayor that drew an admonishment by the city attorney, the panel voted 5-2 in favor. So, in short, the city of Oroville is officially considering allowing pot sales. But some people, the mayor included, are less than pleased about that fact.

“I’m just going to say it: This whole thing has been prearranged, prewritten, preapproved,” Mayor Linda Dahlmeier said just before the vote. “I’m reading between the lines. There are real estate agents waiting in the wings for this vote to take place. … This all doesn’t just happen in two weeks.”

She was echoing sentiments of Councilman Scott Thomson, who previously accused city staff of being biased by driving two hours north to visit the city of Shasta Lake, which has allowed commercial cannabis, but “you haven’t visited all the cities in between that said ‘no.’”

Following Dahlmeier’s outburst, City Attorney Scott Huber interjected. “At the risk of stepping on toes,” he said, “I have to defend staff. This wasn’t preordained or predetermined. If you all vote tonight to tell us to ‘stuff it,’ then this would end.”

The writing, however, was on the wall, with Dahlmeier and Thomson casting the only dissenting votes.

What led to this point was contentious as well, meandering more than once into religious territory. Dahlmeier introduced the matter at hand without reading the actual language outlining what the council was being asked to do. With no comments from council or introduction otherwise, public comment was promptly opened.

The first half of the three hours of discussion was weighted heavily by the anti-cannabis contingent, including at least half a dozen men who described themselves as pastors. Interestingly, however, the second speaker, Faith Henderson, who called allowing commercial activity a “big, bold move in the right direction,” set the tone for the Bible references when she quoted Genesis: “And God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the Earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for food.’”

She was answered throughout the meeting. “God made every herb. He also made poison oak. Just because God made it doesn’t mean we need to smoke it,” said Chris Jacobson, a youth pastor in town.

“Back when God created the Earth, it was pure,” said Kenneth J. Paul Sr. “Now it’s full of chemicals.”

The religious references didn’t end there. Ken Malone, pastor at New Life Christian Center in Oroville, went so far as to challenge the faith of those sitting on the dais. “Do you guys have a conscience? I know there are believers up here. If you think that you can actually pass something like this and be a believer, I question your believing. You’re not a Christian.”

Christina Kelly fired back, describing herself as a “Christian woman” who supports cannabis, within reason. She advocated for more education. “What hurt me the most was when your religious belief was questioned,” she told the council. “Nobody’s belief should be questioned, no matter what.”

Laura Page, who works for Congressman Doug LaMalfa, appeared on his behalf and read a letter that he’d addressed to the council about its discussion of drafting a “marijuana cultivation ordinance.” She raised her voice to emphasize his points, including the recent backpedaling by the U.S. Attorney General’s Office on promising a hands-off approach to states’ enactment of cannabis regulations.

First, he referenced Oroville’s many assets, from a rich history to diverse job opportunities to abundant recreational activities. “A lax and broad marijuana ordinance that is contrary to federal law places these community assets in peril,” Page read. The crowd erupted in applause.

At 10 p.m., after a 15-minute break for leg-stretching, Dahlmeier reconvened the meeting and, for the first time, read the language that the council would be voting on. She then reopened the public comment period.

“The early part of this discussion reminded me of reefer madness. The misinformation and the hysteria …” said Oroville resident Bill Bynum. “California voters passed this. It’s legal. We don’t need a black market, we don’t need prohibition. We do need education.”

Jessica MacKenzie, who heads the Inland Cannabis Farmers’ Association, addressed the council, introducing herself jokingly as “the devil.” “You guys are in a tough spot,” she said. “It’s a sea change, and sea changes are hard. But it is legal now, and we have to decide what to do with that.

“Bans do not change behavior,” she added. “They only keep you from having any control.”

Public comment ended around 11 p.m. and was followed by comments—not really a discussion—by the council. While a few did seem wary of action from the federal government, even Art Hatley, who worked for the Oroville Police Department for 26 years, including a stint on the Butte Interagency Narcotics Task Force, was not swayed by threats of federal intervention. “I’m the guy I have to look at every morning when I shave,” he quipped. “I want more questions answered.”

The panel ultimately agreed. Staff will move forward with researching options and drafting legislation to be discussed at future meetings.