Palo Alto voters will have a chance next year to overturn the city's 15-year-old ban on marijuana dispensaries and allow three facilities to set up shop in the city.
With little discussion and no dissent, the City Council voted early Tuesday morning to place on the November 2012 ballot an ordinance that would legalize up to three medical marijuana dispensaries and impose a 4 percent tax on the gross receipts of the businesses. If voters approve it, they would effectively nix the ban on marijuana dispensaries that the council swiftly passed in 1996.
The council was forced to revisit the subject this week by a citizen initiative that received more than enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. Faced with the choice of adopting the ordinance outright, crafting its own version, or forwarding it to the voters, the council voted 7-0, with Vice Mayor Yiaway Yeh and Councilwoman Gail Price absent, to go with the lattermost.
The vote means that in addition to voting for a U.S. president and for four council members in 2012, local residents could add Palo Alto to a list of Bay Area cities -- including San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland and San Jose -- that allow sales of medical marijuana.
The proposed ordinance specifies that the new shops would only be able to operate between 9 a.m. and 10 p.m. and prohibits them from being located near schools, parks or day care centers. Dispensaries would have to pay $10,000 for a permit.
Before the vote, the council heard testimony from 10 speakers, all of whom spoke in favor of medical marijuana. Others attended the meeting but left well before the council began discussing the item shortly after midnight.
The few who stayed preached the virtues of medical marijuana and urged the council to make Palo Alto the Peninsula's leader in sanctioning it. Resident Tracy Chen broke down during her testimony when she spoke about marijuana's effect on her medical condition, which she said includes chronic, neurological and autoimmune problems.
"When you're in chronic pain and you can't function and you can't work and socialize and you find something that brings back your whole life -- I can't believe you guys would ban it!" Chen said.
Former State Assemblyman John Vasconcellos urged the council to listen to the will of the voters across the state and in Palo Alto. The California majority, he noted, supported legalizing medical marijuana in 1996, when voters passed Proposition 215, allowing the dispensaries. In Palo Alto, he said, voters supported it by nearly a three-to-one margin.
"I plead with you to listen to the people, the law, science and your hearts," Vasconcellos told the council.
Coming on the heels of a four-hour discussion of a mixed-use development, the marijuana discussion was strikingly brief. As in the past, the council showed little appetite for engaging the subject, with most members opting not to comment at all.
Councilwoman Karen Holman suggested directing staff to study the issue further and report back to the council in spring 2012, but only Councilman Greg Schmid supported her idea, which failed by a 2-5 vote.
The council then swiftly adopted Councilman Larry Klein's proposal to bring the issue to the voters.
"I think our obligation is to put it on the ballot," Klein said, noting that he didn't think crafting a competing ordinance would be appropriate in this case.
According to Americans for Safe Access, a medical-marijuana advocacy group, 48 California cities currently regulate marijuana dispensaries while 168 have banned them. Another 81 have moratoriums on dispensaries in place.