Business / Economy

Council to decide fate of medical marijuana ordinance Sept. 19

The Hollister City Council chambers were packed as residents and medical marijuana advocates debated an ordinance on which the council will take a final vote next month
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After Hollister City Councilman Raymond Friend failed to convince the other four council members at the Aug. 15 meeting to vote at the next meeting, Sept. 5, on three resolutions related to a medical marijuana ordinance, he came right back and made a second motion to vote right then and there.

“Vote now, yes or no,” he challenged.

The answer came back in an unspoken “no,” as his fellow council members remained mute and his motion failed to garner a “second.”

“I guess we’ll just wait until the state tells us what to do,” Friend retorted as the audience applauded the decision to delay the vote even further. Then,Councilwoman Mickie Luna made a motion to finalize the ordinance at the Sept. 19 meeting. Councilman Karson Klauer, who had the ordinance placed on the night’s agenda, seconded it, and in a 4-0 vote it was decided that the council would finally vote, one way or the other, on Hollister’s medical marijuana ordinance that Councilman Victor Gomez said the city had been studying for more than seven years.

The vote came after 36 people stood before the council and spoke their minds about the possibility of the city falling in line with the state’s position on medical marijuana. What was different at this official meeting from the informal meeting held at Veterans Memorial Building on Aug. 4, where more than 200 interested parties attended and the ratio of those speaking for and against the ordinance was dead even, last night’s tally was 23 out of the 36 against passing such an ordinance.

Earlier, city attorney Brad Sullivan explained that the meeting was the result of the ad hoc committee’s input, and their direction to him to make revisions in order to clarify that if the adult marijuana usage act (recreational use) passes at the state level on the November ballot, it will not automatically apply to the city ordinance, and would require action on the council’s part. Friend and Klauer were the ad hoc committee.

Sullivan also said that the “downtown business and commercial zone was taken out as a potential site for dispensaries.” He said language that allowed using marijuana on-site at the dispensary was removed and that any use would have to be in a person’s home. He pointed out that should the council pass the ordinance, there would still need to be regulations concerning the application process and grounds for reviews, and that there will only be two dispensaries in the city during the first two calendar years if the ordinance passes.

Mayor Ignacio Velazquez reminded everyone that at the Aug. 4 meeting, he said he wanted to have more meetings in order to gather more detailed, industry-specific case studies and allow the public to continue to address their concerns. He wanted to know how the city would regulate legal home-grown marijuana, as well as curtail illegal activity. He said he wanted to know why everyone was in such a hurry.

Friend answered that the only way the entire council could discuss the issue was for them to be at a council meeting. He said that while public meetings around town are great, the council cannot discuss the issue unless it’s brought back to chambers during an official meeting.

“It may have to come back here three of four more times,” Friend said. “I’m not looking at a timeline on it. I’m just saying if it’s not on our agenda we can’t talk about it. We can’t just go meet in a garage and discuss this. This is the only way we can do it, by having public meetings.”

Klauer told the mayor that he was not trying to push the ordinance through.

“When our own information sources are quotes through BenitoLink and the Hollister Free Lance, it is a little difficult for the ad hoc committee to move forward and understand what it is the council is looking for,” Klauer said. “It would be great to hear from the public tonight, but we also want to hear from the council.”

Then, Velazquez opened up the meeting to public discussion, limiting comments to one minute and asking those who would speak to identify where they live. One of the speakers, Tim Burns, challenged the time limitation, stating that the council was probably violating one of its own municipal codes. And when a cannabis lobbyist, Sean Donahoe, who had been speaking at the meetings for the past eight months, was asked where he was from, Sullivan abruptly interrupted and told the council that they could not ask citizens for that information.

Donahoe said he thought the ordinance was well-crafted and asked those in the room who were fearful of the potential problems medical marijuana would cause to the city, “What problem do you articulate that this regulation would not fix?”

As at previous meetings, those who spoke before the council came at the issue either from an emotional perspective out of concern for the community or the potential exposure of children to marijuana, or from the perspective of those who have suffered from various ailments and received relief only through the use of medical marijuana. Then there were those who were already in the industry as growers or dispensary operators, and some who wanted to gain a foothold in it as new “cannabis entrepreneurs.”

When Gary Cameron started to challenge the involvement of  Klauer, because the councilman is a real estate agent, and Sullivan, because of his affiliation with L+G LLP Attorneys at Law, a firm that represents the cannabis industry, of possible conflicts of interest, Velazquez stopped him and stated that those issues would be clarified later. He asked Cameron to only share his opinions on cannabis use. Cameron went on to say that because there were a number of dispensaries in nearby communities, there need not be any in Hollister.

“I don’t have a problem with people who have a legitimate need for marijuana as a medicine, but I do have a problem when we all know that it has been abused and there’s a lot of marijuana that’s being distributed that isn’t for medical use, but it’s for recreational use,” he said.

Barbara Saunders, who said she moved to Hollister 35 years ago, said that when she walks around her neighborhood she sees people using marijuana and believes it should only be sold in some form through pharmacies rather than dispensaries. She also said if a person were dying, they should be able to obtain whatever “hard drugs” they need.

Juli Vieira, CEO of the San Benito County Chamber of Commerce, asked the council to take into consideration several concerns before taking a vote, including more time for public input, having the ordinance state that there will not be dispensaries in the downtown corridor, limits on the number of permits issued for two to three years so city officials can determine how the ordinance is affecting the community, and that dispensaries be kept a pre-determined distance from schools, churches, parks and other places where children gather, such as fast-food businesses and the Y.M.C.A.

Dr. Cammon Arrington, who did not identify himself as a doctor, first said he couldn’t believe that an attorney (Sullivan) from L+G LLP Attorneys at Law, would have been asked to draw up the ordinance. Then he said pharmacies are already a well-established way to dispense legal drugs.

“Marijuana or cannabis can be put into medical forms that are not affiliated with the drug culture and that’s the way we should proceed if we want to bring cannabis to our community,” Arrington said. “It should be in forms that are not smoked, not candy-like, that are not forms affiliated with crime and other problems.”

Nancy Knight said she has not been able to locate any environmental impact study information on the city’s website. She said there should be information about impacts on groundwater and asked if the ordinance complies with the city’s general plan, and if there needs to be an amendment to the general plan. Taylor Rodriguez, along with two representatives, spoke, as he has at previous meetings, of his desire to put his recent college degree to use as a cannabis entrepreneur in the city by operating a family-run dispensary. Bonnie Wells, who said she has lived in the county 48 years, said one of her children was walking home from Sunnyslope Elementary School and she was approached by a dealer who asked if she wanted to buy marijuana. Wells said she opposes the ordinance and that if people want to buy medical marijuana they should be able to do so through a pharmacy.

“If Gilroy and Morgan Hill were smart enough not to take on this industry then why should we be stupid enough to try it ourselves?" she asked.

Travis Byers, who described himself as a fourth-generation resident, said his whole family cultivates marijuana. He said that even so, the main thing that concerns him is people coming to Hollister in order to rob growers. He said his uncles live in Mendocino County, where they’re allowed to grow 25 plants and being robbed is a big issue.

“Everyone has guns. Everyone is in self-defense mode because they’re worried that somebody is going to try to steal their pot,” he said. “I think it’s a bad combination for this town. It’s going to be kind of scary. You never know what’s going to happen. Gilroy didn’t pass it. Morgan Hill didn’t, so they’re (thieves) going to try to come here.”

After audience members spoke, each council member told them of their own concerns. Councilman Victor Gomez commented that within minutes of him being sworn in as mayor in 2009, the council dealt with the opening of a dispensary in town, and within a few months an ordinance was passed to ban all dispensaries within the city. He said over the last seven years his feelings have changed.

“I’m more compassionate,” he said. “I don’t know anybody who uses it, but the folks I’ve had conversations with do benefit from the use of medical marijuana. In 1996, Prop. 215 passed by 56 percent of the vote. Fifty-six percent is an overwhelming majority of voters in California that support medical marijuana.”

Then he advised the audience that Prop. 64, which addresses adult use of marijuana in California, will be on the Nov. 8 ballot and is currently polling at 60 percent favorability among likely voters.

“That means 60 percent of voters are going to support recreational use of marijuana,” he said, “not medical use, but any type of use for 21 and over who are going to be able to smoke pot for any reason.”

Gomez warned that there will have to be dispensaries for medical marijuana in the city, and if not, a retailer will come to town in order to sell marijuana for recreational use.

Luna said she was not ready to vote until she received more input and had a chance to go through the ordinance again. She said the council will be making a decision that will affect the entire community. She questioned the actual number of people within the community who need medical marijuana. She contemplated that marijuana is already in Hollister, whether anyone wanted to admit it or not, and questioned the ease at which people can get medical marijuana cards from questionable doctors.

Velazquez said he is neither for or against medical marijuana, but that he was more concerned about the state forcing the city to comply with state law.

“I’m not fond of the state and definitely not fond of the federal government, but it’s important to understand the information, and that’s my concern right now — we need information,” he said. “I want to know what really happened in communities that approved it. I want facts.”

Friend said that while he had a personal reason for being involved in the issue, in that his late wife had used medical marijuana, the real reason was because of his concern for the community.

“I want us to be in control of what we have in our community,” he said. “If we don’t do anything, the state will be in control. If you think the state has got your best interest in mind, you’re wrong. The only reason the state is behind this is that they figured out they can make money on this.”

 Friend said that he feels compassion for those who do not want medical marijuana in the community, but said the issue is not new, that the state passed the medical marijuana law 10 years ago.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen in November, but I do know what’s here today,” he said. “The medical marijuana community is established. We went through 12 city ordinances to help us write this. We went to four different counties that allow it.”

Friend challenged those in the room to read the ordinance.

“Most of the questions you have are taken care of,” he said. “There are regulations within the ordinance taking care of 15-year-olds wanting to get medical marijuana; how it’s grown; what happens to the water; what water are they going to use; what about ventilation systems?; it’s in there. I’m just asking you to read the ordinance and I think you have a different take on what’s going to happen.”

When push came to shove at the conclusion of the meeting and the council members were bouncing possible dates back and forth about when to take a final vote, Friend said he thought the ordinance was fine as it was written and wanted to vote right then. The other members did not agree and Sept. 19 was finally chosen as the date where they would cast their votes.

John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a BenitoLink reporter and an author. He has many years' experience as a freelance photojournalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer who has worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and underwent graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John has worked as a script doctor and his own script, God's Club, was released as a motion picture in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]