Citing the city's long struggle with illegal drug sales and related crime, some East Palo Alto City Council members said on Tuesday night they would not favor lifting a ban on marijuana retail stores, while others supported allowing some sort of commercial operations.
Four council members, with Councilman Larry Moody absent, directed staff to return soon with a possible draft regulation on personal indoor marijuana growing, and to explore other retail and business uses, now that state law has made regulated sales and recreational use legal.
But the council's overall mood seemed unlikely to allow marijuana dispensaries or shops after the city's temporary ban runs out in November. Mayor Ruben Abrica and Councilwoman Donna Rutherford were unequivocally against allowing the sales; Vice Mayor Lisa Gauthier wanted to explore some options such as manufacturing and testing, while Councilman Carlos Romero said he supported allowing regulated retail sales and other commercial ventures.
For Rutherford and Abrica, the biggest issues are the impact on youth and the strain on police resources if marijuana shops are allowed to operate.
"I have a lot of concerns regarding the use of any kinds of drugs. East Palo Alto went through the drug phase years ago. I don't want to go back to the old drug days. Yes, this is legal now, but I think it's going to be a big problem for us," Rutherford said. "We may end up being the place where everyone comes to buy drugs. All money is not good money," she said, noting that East Palo Alto could be the default city for marijuana sales, if surrounding cities restrict sales in their communities.
"I have to say this is one social movement I'd rather not involve our city full blast in. I think that it could impact our city in ways that are unforeseen, and that would trigger -- you know, revive -- issues," he said.
Abrica said he understood the medical use of cannabis and was sympathetic to anything that can relieve pain and suffering, but people who want to use marijuana can get it somewhere else. There isn't a Home Depot or an Ikea in every town, and there doesn't have to be a marijuana store in every locale either, he said.
Marijuana is an above-ground business now, but Abrica wants to wait and see.
"Let the experiment go on," he said. In a few years, the city might reassess the decision after it plays out elsewhere. "I rather not add additional burdens to the Police Department or to staff or to our community," he said.
Gauthier said she found the decision difficult. She doesn't want long lines of people outside a marijuana retail store, and retail sales might not stop unlicensed dealers from selling on the streets. But she also acknowledged the oppressive history of criminalization, which has incarcerated many residents of black and brown communities. She said she did not want to criminalize the community now.
Romero went further in defining the negative impact of drug laws.
"I think for far too long low-income communities, subordinated communities and communities of color have suffered under an oppressive drug-regulatory scheme in this country that has both abused, jailed and criminalized folks living in communities of color," he said.
He was inclined to explore allowing marijuana retail and other business uses, but he expressed concern that regulation and taxation of marijuana, which is allowed on a local level under state law, would be "a barrier for entry" for residents if costs were too high.
Staff suggested there should be regulation on residential cultivation from a health and safety perspective, including inspections to make sure people weren't exceeding state limits to six plants, checking for molds and complying with building codes related to electricity and structures. Those services come at a price, so the city could charge a registration or impact fee, staff said.
But Romero expressed concern that those fees might be too high, and they could make even personal cultivation too restrictive for people to afford to grow their own stash.
Gauthier asked staff to explore allowing other business opportunities other than retail sales, such as manufacturing and testing of marijuana products. Romero said the city might find a way to have a tax on marijuana sales and related businesses that would not be revenue generator, but it could be used to develop programs that would curb marijuana use among young people.
All of the council members said introducing marijuana to young people was their top concern, although they acknowledged that many people in the community have already been buying and using the drug. When the city had one medical marijuana dispensary -- an illegal one, as the city doesn't allow them to operate -- Romero said he heard from many young people that they got their marijuana from people who had purchased the weed at the dispensary. Hence, another concern about allowing marijuana stores.
Council members also expressed concern about security and the potential for robberies and burglaries of retail shops. Marijuana shops can't put their money in banks under federal law, police Chief Al Pardini said. He thinks police will see increased calls for levels of service related to marijuana crimes -- and traffic violations. Currently, California doesn't have a threshold for driving under the influence for marijuana, such as exists for blood-alcohol levels. Colorado has a law setting a legal limit of 5 milligrams per milliliter of blood, he said.
Staff told the council that time is of the essence to develop any ordinances. The council should consider regulations on personal use as soon as possible, City Attorney Rafael Alvarado said. Council members will have to weigh options related to what, if any, commercial marijuana operations they would allow by about September, he said, in advance of the temporary ban's November expiration.