Stuck on the pot

Chico City Council postpones a decision on medical-cannabis ordinance

More of the same.

That’s the gist of what happened during the Chico City Council’s regular meeting Tuesday evening (Nov. 16), as the panel heard testimony from the public on the proposed municipal-code amendments designed to regulate the growing, processing and distribution of medical cannabis within the city.

With Councilman Larry Wahl absent, the six remaining council members listened to a couple of dozen people, mostly medi-pot advocates, but also local law-enforcement personnel, including Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey. The 24 speakers weighed in during the public hearing with many of the same thoughts, opinions and ideas heard in council chambers over the past year as the City Council and Planning Commission have attempted to address the issue.

The council members had before them a proposal that would allow for limited cultivation in residential zones, cultivation and processing of the herb in general-manufacturing and light-industrial zoning districts, and also distribution in the latter regions as well as service-commercial districts. Of course, there were caveats in the proposed ordinance—too many to list. Such facilities would be prohibited within 300 feet of an existing daycare center or residential region, and also within 1,000 feet of any school, for example.

Planning Services Director Mark Wolfe explained to the council how city staff had done extensive research on the subject of medical marijuana, including looking at ordinances adopted in other California cities. He noted that, because the city is entering into new land-use territory, city staff crafted a conservative proposal.

“I believe our first step should be a careful one,” he said.

Indeed, while pot dominated the meeting and ended up crowding out many of the remaining issues on a packed agenda, including a controversial item on the possible termination of the city’s franchise agreement with the Downtown Chico Business Association for the Thursday Night Market, the council did not come to a resolution. Instead, as the meeting edged close to 10 p.m., the panel agreed to postpone a decision, and scheduled a special meeting for Nov. 30.

Councilman Andy Holcombe was one of the most vocal members on the dais during the evening. And straight away he played devil’s advocate, asking city staff why medical marijuana had not been treated as a land-use decision would for, say, a homeopathy facility or some similar alternative-health practice.

“Treat it for what it is—a processed medical herb,” he offered.

Wolfe acknowledged that this was a good question. He said the city opted for erring on the side of caution since marijuana is primarily used recreationally and also because it remains a “Schedule I” drug at the federal level. It’s important, he said, to have some sort of control over distribution.

Distribution of the drug is the reason Ramsey showed up at the meeting, flanked by deputy district attorneys Jeff Greeson and Helen Harberts. Ramsey did not appear to have a problem with the ordinance in regard to individual residential cultivation and some forms of cooperatives/collectives. His main concern was with the dispensaries, which he contended are not permitted under Proposition 215 or its companion bill, SB 420.

He made the distinction that marijuana is not legal, but rather that the state has granted seriously ill patients limited immunity against prosecution for cultivation and possession of the herb. He also noted that people have taken advantage of the Compassionate Use Act, citing statistics gathered from his late-June raid on Chico dispensaries showing that half of the recommendations on file were from patients under age 30. Twenty percent were under 21, he said.

“Either we have a very sick community or we have a lot of fraud,” he said.

Ramsey and his crew were the only speakers who opposed the proposed ordinance.

Earlier in the meeting, Jason Oh, a founding partner of Plant Properties Management (PPM), talked briefly about his purported $20 million project to cultivate medical-grade cannabis in the 600,000-square-foot former Koret building at the Chico Municipal Airport, which, as the draft ordinance stands, is not a suitable location for this type of operation. Los Angeles-based Oh and his three associates said the company would bring not only jobs to Chico, but also transparency to the cultivation process, including ensuring that the marijuana is free of any contaminants, such as pesticides.

But the group’s pitch was met with resistance, particularly from folks affiliated with already-established dispensaries and collectives.

Chico-based lobbyist Max Del Real, who has been working with local group Citizen Collective in its efforts to open a dispensary, encouraged the city to limit the number of dispensaries to two, noting that Oakland has just four. He said the Los Angeles region is a poor model and called PPM’s plan a bad idea.

“What happens when you don’t have regulation is you leave yourself open to victimization,” he said.