Legal marijuana may soon be the law of the land, but Palo Alto residents who expect to see a pot shop opening up in their neighborhood will likely be in for a buzzkill.
The city is preparing to pass a law that would ban local marijuana dispensaries -- an effort that the Planning and Transportation Commission unanimously supported on Wednesday night. The city's law would effectively extend the ban on dispensaries that the council passed last year as an "emergency" measure and that is set to expire in November.
The new law is the city's latest response to Proposition 64, a measure that California voters passed last November and that received support from about two-thirds of local voters. While the state law legalizes and taxes marijuana, it also gives local agencies some power to curtail commercial operations.
Palo Alto is one of several cities that is looking to exercise this power (Campbell and Beverly Hills have also passed local restrictions). The new local ordinance would kick in before Jan. 1, 2018, when the state is scheduled to start issuing licenses for commercial marijuana operations. In presenting the proposed ordinance, Deputy City Attorney Tim Shimizu characterized it as a way to preserve some local control in California's evolving landscape of marijuana law.
Because the state can start issuing permits early next year, dispensaries would be allowed to operate in Palo Alto even if the city decides it doesn't want them. Furthermore, if the City Council opts to ban dispensaries at a later time, existing shops would likely be "grandfathered" in and allowed to operate.
Shimizu said the new ordinance would prohibit most commercial activities (with the exception of marijuana deliveries) "to give the city more time to study its options and wait for the final state regulations to be released."
The commission's vote this week follows a similar action by the council's Policy and Services Committee, which backed the new ordinance by a 3-0 vote in June.
Councilman Cory Wolbach, who chairs the committee, said at the June meeting that given the changes happening at state level, passing a law that maintains the status quo is a prudent action.
"Once the state law is cleared up, we can have a real discussion, understanding the context of state law," Wolbach said.
The planning commission took a similar stance this week. In voting 7-0, commission members agreed with the council's decision to maintain the city's ban on marijuana dispensaries while allowing delivery services. The council also agreed last year to ban outdoor cultivation, though that ban will expire in November. After that, the city will be operating under state standards for outdoor cultivation -- which means that growing up to six plants outdoors will become legal, provided the marijuana is within a locked space and out of public view (indoor cultivation is allowed under the state law).
The commission also considered on Wednesday a staff proposal to further limit cultivation by requiring growth to take place inside fully enclosed "accessory structures," such as a shed or greenhouse. Members rejected this option, with Commissioner Eric Rosenblum saying doing so would be "meaningless" (since pot will already be out of public view), Commissioner Doria Summa calling the idea "a little silly" and Chair Michael Alcheck arguing that it would "add a level of complexity that I don't think it's prudent."
Otherwise, the commission was fully on board with staff's proposal to keep marijuana dispensaries out of Palo Alto.
"In general, I support the conservative approach," Commissioner Ed Lauing said. "It's the Wild West. Let's figure out what's going on."
The commission also agreed with the council's direction in deciding to allow commercial operations to deliver marijuana to local users. Susan Monk was one of several commissioners who advocated for allowing delivery, though she also lobbied for more stringent verification requirements, to make sure that the recipient of the marijuana is of age.
The new law intends to buy time for Palo Alto to consider "alternative regulations," according to a report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment. The report also suggests that the new ordinance could also be a stepping stone to further regulations.
"Should the City wish to regulate personal uses of cannabis, including smoking and personal cultivation, staff recommends that regulations or laws be developed after the State issues its regulations," the report states. "In other words, the recommended ordinance is a first step in several possible steps toward regulating commercial and personal use of cannabis in Palo Alto."