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Council Moves Forward with Allowing Marijuana Dispensaries

A motion to pursue a citywide ban fails, but the council provides the necessary votes to support Ordinance Committee recommendations

In the end, as with most policy discussions, it came down to compromise.

After more than four hours of public comment and discussion, the Santa Barbara City Council voted 5-2 Tuesday night to move forward with the Ordinance Committee’s recommendations for revising the city’s ordinance on medical marijuana dispensaries.

The council needed five votes to take action on the nearly yearlong ordeal of revising the ordinance, originally adopted in 2008, and members threw ideas for compromise around since the alternative most likely would mean months more of deliberation — leading to the same lack of consensus.

Though some community members have pushed for a ban all along, that opinion has become louder recently, and a motion to send the Ordinance Committee back to work on a ban failed in a 4-3 vote.

Councilman Frank Hotchkiss, who made the motion, eventually provided the fifth vote to move forward with the recommendations put forth by him and fellow Councilmen Grant House and Bendy White.

House, Councilman Das Williams and Mayor Helene Schneider were against considering a ban, so it became a mission of maneuvering to get two more votes to their side in last-minute changes if any action was to be taken.

The frustration over the situation was obvious. After months of work, community input and ever-changing specifics, people came forward during public comment to say the ordinance revisions were not what they wanted, and in some cases, that meant they supported an outright ban.

Santa Barbara School District Superintendant Brian Sarvis has presented and reiterated the school board’s recommendations of requiring 1,000 feet between the storefronts and schools, limiting hours and other student-related measures. On Tuesday, he said the proposed ordinance “doesn’t protect kids and doesn’t protect schools” by excluding those suggestions, so he supported a total ban.

All along, the discussion — and Ordinance Committee’s task — has focused on making stricter restrictions for the ordinance to give the city enforcement power and to try, as much as possible, to put safeguards in place against illegal activity and abuse.

The council voted to go ahead with the Ordinance Committee’s recommendations, including a citywide cap of five and specific record-keeping and member requirements.

In her motion, Schneider proposed changing the 500-foot requirement from schools to 600 feet — the same as liquor stores — making membership and cultivation limited to Santa Barbara County, eliminating the downtown area as a possible location, requiring a 24-hour waiting period and having applicant appeals go through the Planning Commission then City Council.

The Rally

A rally held in De la Guerra Plaza before Tuesday’s council meeting quickly turned ugly, as the recent Planning Commission recommendation of a ban brought out passionate people on both sides of the issue.

Hathor Hammett, a medical marijuana patient and collective member, speaks out on behalf of patients' rights at Tuesday's Santa Barbara City Council meeting
Hathor Hammett, a medical marijuana patient and collective member, speaks out on behalf of patients’ rights at Tuesday’s Santa Barbara City Council meeting. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

The news conference was put on by a pro-ban coalition made up of citizens, substance abuse treatment organizations and school officials, but dozens of medical marijuana patients and supporters came out against the ban in what resulted in a nasty exchange.

The microphone was dominated by those who spoke of the harm allowing marijuana storefronts — even for medical use — could do in the community, given the chance for abuse and criminal activity. The benefits for legitimate patients were outweighed by the risks, some argued.

Members of substance abuse treatment organizations spoke about the harm to children especially, while opponents screamed about the dangers of pharmaceutical drugs and alcohol, saying they are arguably as available, if not more, to young people.

Whenever someone mentioned a ban, the crowd exploded into deafening shouts of “Bull****!” and “That’s your plan?”

While the group argued they weren’t trying to “take away your marijuana,” as one woman put it, the patients in attendance shouted that a ban would severely decrease their access.

SBCC President Andreea Serban said the storefronts send a mixed message to students and make educators’ jobs more difficult, and the crowd was quieter as she spoke.

The microphone was promptly turned off when the last person spoke, and opponents of a ban were left milling around the steps of City Hall as few went inside to speak during public comment. Many were frustrated at not getting a chance to speak.

Holding a hand-drawn sign that read “Have a heart, let patients spark,” medical marijuana patient Charles Mikich said a ban would create difficulties for many people, as not everyone can grow it. He also talked about how pharmaceutical drugs are pushed on children, a common theme among those who came out against the ban, and that marijuana had safer, legitimate medical advantages.

He and his wife, Alexis, said they support a requirement for the storefronts to be located 1,000 feet from schools, but that children can walk right into a pharmacy and steal off the shelves, vs. not being able to even get in the door of a collective storefront.

“You can’t blame marijuana for bad parenting,” he said.

The Meeting

Once inside the Council Chambers, the hostility of the rally was left behind and the general gist of public comment was the same as it has been — mostly in favor of either a ban or the revised ordinance.

For the first time, members of the Police Officers Association and attorney general candidate and Assemblyman Pedro Nava came forward to support a full ban, though Nava made his announcement in letter form.

Jaycee Hunter of the Santa Barbara Police Department said officers have been encountering more driving under the influence arrests because of marijuana use, with dispensary pill bottles and receipts found in the cars, and party calls now consist of people sitting around smoking pot, not just alcohol consumption. He said problems concerning the misuse of marijuana spread out into the community at large.

The enforcement responsibility for police officers also was widely discussed, as they have their hands full shutting down the illegal dispensaries already identified.

Arguments over the legality of the storefronts and the medical need for marijuana once again surfaced, but the discussion eventually came down to the essential question on which city leaders hadn’t yet come to a consensus: Does the city want to allow these storefront collectives to exist, and if so, how much restriction should be placed on them?

House, White, Hotchkiss and Williams have all tackled the revisions through work on the Ordinance Committee, as has vocal dissident and Councilman Dale Francisco, so all were at least partly responsible for the recommendations put forth Tuesday. During the past few months, Schneider has expressed her support for the more restrictive ordinance revisions.

Councilwoman Michael Self, new to the council and not a member of the Ordinance Committee, hadn’t had the opportunity to speak at length about the issue until Tuesday. She voted against the motion.

The proposed ordinance, with Tuesday’s last-minute additions, is likely to go before the council for introduction and adoption in two weeks.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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