After wafting through Los Angeles, San Jose and Oakland, California's cloudy debate over marijuana law will drift into Palo Alto next month, when voters consider whether to allow three dispensaries to open shop in the city.
But as the two campaigns over the Measure C make clear, the terms of the medical-marijuana debate have changed drastically since the sizzling and provocative this-is-your-brain-on-drugs days of the late 1980s. The arguments over dispensaries now focus less on the drug's effects or its possible status as a "gateway" drug (though these still pop up now and then) and more on land-use issues and the status of local, state and federal laws, which are all over the map on the subject. Recent and forthcoming court decisions add another layer of buzzkill to a Palo Alto resident looking for a little clarity in the voting booth.
Palo Alto's marijuana measure landed on the November ballot after a citizens' petition collected more than 4,800 signatures last year. The measure was spearheaded by Ronald Reagan adviser Thomas Gale Moore and Cassandra Chrones Moore, who argued in their notice of intent that legalizing marijuana is both the humane and economically sensible thing to do. The measure would establish a 4 percent tax on gross receipts from the dispensaries, which city officials estimate would bring in about $40,000 in annual revenues.
Peter Allen, spokesman for the Measure C campaign, said the Palo Alto measure was crafted after consideration of various other marijuana ordinances, including those recently adopted in Los Angeles and San Jose. The ordinance in San Jose was suspended last year after a coalition that included dispensary operators succeeded in pushing through a referendum that would have expanded the number of allowed dispensaries from 10 to 25 and modified some of the regulations in the original ordinance.
The San Jose City Council responded to the referendum by suspending the city's prior ordinance, though some dispensaries continue to operate in the city. Los Angeles has also gone back and forth on the topic of dispensaries, with the City Council ultimately deciding in July to ban them.
While Palo Alto voters have been generally sympathetic to legalizing marijuana, as evidenced by the majority vote to support Proposition 215 in 1996, the City Council has been fiercely opposing Measure C. Last month, the council voted unanimously to support a colleagues' memo from Mayor Yiaway Yeh, Vice Mayor Greg Scharff and Councilman Larry Klein formally opposing the measure.
The Palo Alto council is joined in its opposition to Measure C by a coalition of former mayors, including Gary Fazzino, Lanie Wheeler, Dena Mossar and Liz Kniss. The pro-Measure C campaign, meanwhile, has been relying on paid consultants to boost its chances. According to campaign-finance statements filed last week, the campaign is more than $76,000 in debt after spending $82,216 on campaign-related activities. This includes a $56,134 balance with the law firm DLA Piper, LLP, and the $13,500 the campaign had spent on polling services from the firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates.
The memo from Yeh, Scharff and Klein briefly mentions marijuana in connection to drug addiction (which, they write, "can lead to poor school performance, job loss and serious medical problem"), but focuses largely on the murky legal issues. The most significant of these is the contradiction between federal law, which bans marijuana, and state law, which allows it for medical purposes.
"The establishment and regulation of medical dispensaries has been the subject of extensive litigation, and there are several cases pending between the California Supreme Court relating to the cities' ability to permit, regulate or ban medical marijuana dispensaries," the memo states. "If the City issues permits for marijuana to be grown and sold within the City of Palo Alto, it is unclear what the legal ramifications of this could be."
In recent months, state courts have been considering three different cases centered on whether a city can ban marijuana without violating state law. A ruling on these is expected later this year or early next year, City Attorney Molly Stump said. On the flip side of the coin, the state Supreme Court had also considered a Long Beach case centering on whether a state can legalize and regulate marijuana without violating federal law. The state's highest court ultimately declined to issue a ruling on this issue, which essentially upheld a prior ruling from an appeals court. That court concluded that the Long Beach ordinance, by regulating the dispensaries, is effectively permitting them in violation of federal law.
The council has also found the legal argument more convincing than the traditional health argument in stressing its opposition to Measure C. Councilman Pat Burt and Councilwoman Gail Price both distanced themselves from the memo's characterization of marijuana's effects, though they agreed with the memo's other arguments for opposing Measure C and joined their colleagues in the vote. In a recent debate over the measure sponsored by the Midpeninsula Community Media Center, Klein painted the debate over the measure as one that should occur far beyond the local level.
"This is not about legalization of marijuana," Klein said. "If that was the issue, we need to have that done in a far more comprehensive way -- at the federal level, at the state level. It's not a Palo Alto issue by itself."
At the same time, city officials argue the measure's passage would have a significant local impact. Because surrounding cities all ban dispensaries, Palo Alto would become a magnet for pot-related activities. Scharff said allowing dispensaries would lead to increased enforcement activities and a flurry of complaints about pot smoking, harassment of passersby and smoking too close to schools. And even if the dispensaries prove disruptive, Scharff said, the city would be legally obligated to allow three permits.
"No matter how many problems these pot shops cause, the city will be required to continue to allow them to operate regardless of their impacts," Scharff said at the recent debate. "Measure C will bring the sale and cultivation of marijuana to our neighborhoods and our kids."
Proponents of the measure dismiss this argument as a scare tactic with no basis in truth. Allen noted in a recent interview with the Weekly that the ordinance severely restricts the locations where the dispensaries would be allowed. Specifically, they would be prohibited within 150 feet of any residential zone, within 600 feet of any school and within 500 feet of any public library, public park, day care center or substance-abuse rehabilitation center.
"What this will do is allow residents of Palo Alto the option of getting medicine locally instead of having to drive to San Francisco or San Jose," Allen told the Weekly. "I do not think it will have any ill effects in Palo Alto."