City Council punts pot to Planning Commission
Members of the Chico City Council did their best this week to come to terms with a 14-year-old state law allowing for the medicinal use of marijuana. But it’s clear they still have a long way to go to establish local regulations that simultaneously allow patients access to the herb while protecting the community’s interests.
“I think we’re moving in the right direction,” said Councilman Jim Walker, after the conclusion of the public-comment portion of a hearing Tuesday evening (May 4).
Walker was summing up the reactions to a draft ordinance addressing residential grows along with collective grows, processing and distribution. City Attorney Lori Barker presented the proposed law that would require amending the city’s current land-use and development regulations (Title 19). The document has been in the works for the past three months, following a meeting in which the council directed Barker and city staff to set guidelines that comply with California’s Compassionate Use Act of 1996—also known as Proposition 215.
As first presented, the ordinance would allow for outdoor residential cultivation by qualified patients (those with a doctor’s recommendation who live on the property) for their personal use. A permit would not be required, but there are caveats. The plants can’t be visible from a public right-of-way and must be at least five feet from the property line, for example. Patients would be allowed to cultivate inside of a residence only in cases where outdoor cultivation was deemed unfeasible. Those grows would require a permit.
The plan for collectives under the draft is to allow cultivation and processing facilities in light- and general-manufacturing zones. Distribution facilities would be allowed in commercial-services as well as light- and general-manufacturing zoning regions. Both uses would require a permit. The catch is that the facilities are prohibited from any site within 300 feet of residential zoning or within 1,000 feet of a public or private school.
A city map of suitable regions highlights a scant amount of property in south Chico that could house distribution centers. Near to these locations between Park and Forest Avenue is a greater, though still relatively small, amount of property suitable for cultivation. North Chico near the municipal airport and a few other spots provide another option.
Andy Holcombe was the first council member to lob questions at Barker. One of them had to do with the capped outdoor growing area of 50 square feet (a size that many current growers lamented was much too small). The councilman noted that a recent California Supreme Court ruling determined that patients are allowed to possess a “reasonable” amount of marijuana, not the six plants that at one point constituted the legal limit.
While the majority of the panel appeared to be giving suggestions to approve the document, it was clear that Councilman Larry Wahl disapproved of the proposed ordinance altogether.
“Why can’t this stuff be sold in drug stores?” he asked Barker.
She responded that the sale of marijuana is not legal and that doctors cannot give out a traditional prescription. Medicinal use is legal, however, and the ordinance is designed to be consistent with state law, she said.
Medicinal marijuana is a sticky issue that comes down to semantics and interpretation. That’s because its sale is considered illegal, yet so-called caregivers are allowed “reasonable compensation” for their efforts under SB 420, the companion bill to Prop 215. In dealing with that detail, the draft ordinance states that collectives cannot distribute or cultivate for profit. It also says that members are not prevented from sharing in costs.
Speaking on behalf of Sheriff Jerry Smith, Det. Jake Hancock of the Butte County Sheriff’s Office stated that storefront sales are a violation of the law. He said a legal setup would be a closed network of people who are allowed to pay for things such as fertilizer and water and then share equally in the harvest of the crop.
A majority of the 17 speakers at the meeting favored a less restrictive ordinance. A Chico man named Clark Hungerford spoke about the benefits of medicinal use. Cannabis, he said, has helped him to cope with the pain from a congenital hip disorder. It’s also aided his 75-year-old mother, who is a cancer patient.
Hungerford said the size restriction on outdoor cultivation in the draft ordinance will prevent him from growing an adequate supply, and he encouraged the council to not lose sight of the intention of California voters who approved the Compassionate Use Act.
He had read through the ordinance and “never saw the word compassionate anywhere.”
Though the discussion of the nine-page document lasted for about 2 1/2 hours, a majority of the panel seemed to agree that the process is still in its infancy.
“It’s a starting place,” Mayor Ann Schwab explained. The council then voted 6-1 (with Wahl dissenting) to further amend the draft and refer it to the Planning Commission. That panel will make a recommendation that will eventually head back to the council.