Government / Politics

One step forward, two steps back as council delays medical marijuana ordinance again

As medical marijuana ordinance appeared headed for adoption it takes a detour for more rewrites before coming back at the Dec. 19 city council meeting
IMG_0038.JPG
IMG_0010.JPG
IMG_0090.JPG
IMG_0039.JPG
IMG_0083.JPG
IMG_0086.JPG
IMG_0085.JPG
IMG_0084.JPG

What evolved from the Monday, Dec. 5 Hollister City Council meeting might best be summarized by one of Yogi Berra’s most famous of Yogi-isms, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.” After 20 people voiced their views on the long-debated medical marijuana ordinance, and with the clock approaching 10 p.m., it was decided to reboot the ordinance and kick it to the Dec. 19 meeting for a second reading and possible adoption.

Most who stood before the council to speak have spoken many times before at council and supervisor meetings ever since medical marijuana became an issue last June. In the beginning, they represented polar opposites: some were adamantly opposed to marijuana in any form; others supported medical use of marijuana. Monday night’s meeting was different. Nearly everyone, but not all, saw the ordinance as a positive compromise and asked the council to adopt it, as is, at the Dec. 19 meeting.

There was a new wrinkle, however, when two speakers alleged that they not only were combat veterans, but were associated with the Israeli government.

Nick Orlando said he served in the Marines’ 1st Recon Battalion (a Special Forces unit), and was wounded in combat. He said medical cannabis is a necessity for veterans because many have witnessed violent death at a young age, and came back home with “invisible and physical wounds, as well as psychological issues.”

“Medical cannabis is an avenue for veterans to get the help they need,” Orlando said. “Hollister is a great place for surrounding veterans who don’t have access (to medical marijuana) to come here and get that help they need. I’m in favor of medical cannabis. It can help the veterans and provide revenue from the cannabis.”

Chris Clark, chairman of the board for Zyte-Ilan, a U.S.-Israeli corporation, and co-founder of Zyte Oil, which is described on his LinkedIn page as a wholesale manufacturer for domestic and international markets, said he was with a group of combat veterans who he pointed to that were lined up against the back wall in council chambers. He said all of the veterans supported medical cannabis in treating combat-related illnesses.

Clark said his company creates medical products in partnership with the Israeli government. Later, he, along with Sean Donahoe, a lobbyist for the cannabis industry, told BenitoLink that more than $100 million in cannabis research and development money has been diverted to Israel because the U.S. does not allow such research. An article in The Cannabist would seem to confirm their claims.

“What we can bring to this community is more than just cannabis,” Clark said. “It’s an agriculture tech advancement that optimizes the way that crops can be producing by increasing yields up to 50 percent.”

He claimed the University of Colorado had conducted research on the product (which he did not go into detail to explain) and said he has already established relationships in Hollister with strawberry growers.

“We’re asking for the ordinance to be passed so we can bring to this community our agricultural tech,” he said. “What we’re building, and we hope to build it here, is a model that is going to be the baseline for federal reform for the medicalization of cannabis.”

Clark said his company is working Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA 48th District) and is drafting a bill to medicalize cannabis within the Department of Veterans Affairs.   

“We hope to bring our agricultural tech that can help in all crop categories, our medicalized reform solution for the entire cannabis industry at the federal level, jobs for veterans, and jobs for the entire community,” he said. “We’re hoping to create a global model, along with the Israeli government, and I hope you allow us to join you in Hollister in putting that together.”

Clark’s associate, Saman Razani, spoke on the attributes of the company. He apparently intended to encourage residents by explaining what the company was offering the community, but managed to alienate just about everyone in the room on several levels when he addressed an earlier speaker’s statement about bringing high-tech jobs to the county rather than depending on marijuana.

“I just want to ask everybody, who has the qualifications to work for that industry?” he said. “This is an agricultural community. It’s been mired in agriculture for years. We’re trying to hone in on that agriculture ability within the cannabis community. It’s a long, arduous road, but it is the reality of this new world we live in. I think you’ve come a long way and I would suggest that you pass the ordinance as it is written so this community can develop itself and we can infuse it with the right type of people who actually care about what they’re doing and care about the community.”

After all the speakers gave their input, no one could have been blamed for thinking that the next step would be for the council to adopt the ordinance, which was the stated intent of the resolution. After a five-minute break, Mayor Ignacio Velazquez asked if any council members had comments. That’s when the direction of the ordinance suddenly changed when Councilwoman Mickie Luna said she knew some people in the audience would not like what she was about to say.

“I cannot say I agree with the new ordinance,” she said. “I have some questions that need to be answered, and I have a major concern that it seems like a majority of things in the ordinance is going north of the city.”

She went on to point out that the city is divided into four council districts with an elected mayor, who is a part of the voting block and it’s not up to just one person (apparently the mayor) to take the leadership role to tell the rest which direction they are to go. Then she directly addressed Pamela Epstein, temporary city counsel when the topic is cannabis, asking if the city council did approve the ordinance if changes could still be made during the second reading. Epstein told Luna that if there were a substantial amount of changes it might require another first reading.

Then Luna asked who it was that had decided there would be two dispensaries.

“Why not just one?” she said. “The ordinance says we will have two dispensaries and I have a real issue with that.”

Luna went on to also say she objected to any possibility that a dispensary would be located downtown or next to a cinema or schools. She suggested that people question if they really wanted dispensaries at all. She wondered why the ordinance placed much of the responsibility on the city manager and asked if that means the council is second behind him. Epstein explained to Luna that all proposals, including the ordinance and regulations, would come back to the council for their input and final approval.

Luna said there were 11 items in the ordinance with which she had issues, but did not want to discuss them at the moment. She did say she wondered from where the 600-foot distance a dispensary could be from a school or church came. Epstein told her in regards to a school that it was state law. On the other hand, Epstein told Luna it was up to the council to determine what the distance would be from churches.

Councilman Karson Klauer spoke freely about his concerns about the ordinance. Klauer and Councilman Raymond Friend had made up the first medical marijuana ad hoc committee. Later, Klauer stepped aside and Velazquez joined Friend in working on efforts to draft the ordinance. While Klauer said there were some good aspects of the ordinance, he still had issues with it.

He explained how the process of researching and writing the ordinance had unfolded over the months, commenting about zoning ordinances and the number of dispensaries and their potential locations. He said light-industrial zoned areas should be in the ordinance because the majority of the industrial areas in Hollister are zoned as such. He also recommended there be a point system for businesses that locate near the airport.

“My feeling about what we have, in terms of zoning, is not very good,” Klauer said and addressed, as he has before, that the ordinance prevents dispensaries from being within 600 feet of churches.

“You have churches that are not only in areas that are not designed for churches, but they’re not permitted, so you have churches that are grandfathered in to the zoning in the light-industrial area that if you look in the regulations are not even allowed,” he said. “I don’t know how you can use 600 feet from a church in an area that’s meant for creating jobs.”

He explained that while people go to church one or perhaps two or three times a week, other people need to work all week. He implied that by keeping the zoning regulations as they are, jobs will not come to the area. Klauer also challenged the term “special use” when applied to housing, which also has a 600-foot abeyance from dispensaries.

“How can the use that is by far the most abundant in the entire town be a ‘special use?’” he said, going on to say the 600-foot rule, or even more, makes sense for schools. Then added, cryptically, “Residents would be amazed by the types of businesses that we have in town that are much more impactful on residents around them than a greenhouse would be. There’s some businesses around here that I won’t go into because it would freak some people out, but there’s some weird stuff that happens here. For me, cultivation, essentially light manufacturing, are not beyond any of the uses or types of businesses we’re already seeing.”

Klauer also told of his issue that part of the ordinance that stated anyone who works at a dispensary had been changed from 18 to 21 years old. He said if an 18-year-old could work at a pharmacy or restaurant that served alcohol, they should be able to work at a medical marijuana dispensary. He also wondered why medical marijuana could not be delivered by motorcycles.

“This version of the ordinance has come a long way,” he said. “Obviously, whatever Councilman Friend and I wrote was not good enough and this probably isn’t good enough, either, especially for anybody who is looking for a job or hoping to start a business.”

Klauer said that as each revision was produced, it has become more restrictive, causing land prices to increase.

“The prices of rent are going up, too,” he said. “You’re going to see small businesses that are barely making it, when their rent gets jacked up because you have all these medical marijuana businesses competing for those few spaces — you’re going to have businesses get kicked out. That’s not something I want to see. I think we’re going in the right direction, but this is going too far.”

Newly-seated Councilman Roy Sims joked that it was his pleasure to talk about medical marijuana on his first day serving on the council. He said he thought medical marijuana could work, but that he is against recreational use in the city, county or even the state. He said he didn’t believe the ordinance was thorough enough and it simultaneously fell short and went too far in some of its restrictions. One area he felt was not covered in the ordinance was packaging, saying that the appearance of marijuana products should not appeal to children because they resemble candy rather than medications. He also said regulations should not be included within the ordinance, but should be drafted afterwards.

“We should pull regulations out of this ordinance,” Sims said. “Draft a well thought-out ordinance, and then work with our city departments to figure out those codes to meet the ordinance look like. We need to be very restrictive with those codes.”

Sims said he did not believe the number of dispensaries is the big issue, but rather cultivation and manufacturing was where the most growth will be seen.

“Those will be a much bigger industry rather than a couple store fronts to support local residents,” he said. “People have focused on store fronts. We have a lot of drug distribution centers. They’re called pharmacies. We don’t limit the number of pharmacies and don’t have additional laws on them. Some of them have very scary drugs that are being sold.”

Sims also said product names were important. He said names such as "Girl Scout Cookies," or "Jolly Rancher" were not appropriate for medical products. He said names should reflect medications and not be used to make a product sound cool.

“In terms of economic viability, I don’t think we should ever make decisions on medication access because of the amount of money we’re going to be making,” he said. “That’s the biggest problem with medications today in what gets pushed. I’d like to take that out of the equation. I don’t want to hear ‘it’s economically viable,’ when our point is access to a medication.”

Sims also questioned the logic of cannabis production as a cash crop, stating that years of successfully growing crops in the area because it is economically viable has not depended on the cannabis industry and farmers getting together.

“At this point, I don’t support this ordinance,” he concluded.

Councilman Friend was obviously dismayed when he said, “I don’t know where to start,” and then thanked everyone for giving their opinions. He said he had heard several references to the ordinance being a compromise, and disagreed.

“This is a one-sided deal,” he said. “Yes, one group has moved off the fact that they didn’t want marijuana in the city to the point where we are now.”

He addressed the 600-foot rule.

“I’m telling you, if we pass this there are several churches in this community that are going to lose their space because the owners of those buildings they’re renting from can see three times the rent from somebody in the cannabis industry. Those churches are going to close,” he said.

The 600-foot restriction, Friend added, should not apply to houses and that light-industrial should be put back into the ordinance because many areas in the city that are zoned that way are either empty lots, junkyards or homeless camps. He said he also has an issue with the age limitation for people working in the cannabis industry.

“You can get a prescription at 18 and go fill it at a drug store,” he said. “You can join the military and serve your country. We’re so restrictive that we’ve just ruined this whole thing. It’s not a compromise.”

Velazquez said he had spent a lot of time studying the issues of the cannabis industry in order not to repeat mistakes made by other communities, and said he was amazed to see communities continuing to make mistakes in order to rush into the industry. He explained that San Jose is the best example of how not to get into the cannabis industry.

“After 150 dispensaries opened, they had a nightmare on their hands,” he said. “When they figured that out they went back and rewrote their ordinance to be more restrictive and they licensed 16 dispensaries. Now they’re in the process of removing those others that don’t want to go.”

The difference between the current ordinance and the first, he said, is the result of listening to both sides of the issue and studying it.

“If we’re going into this to make money we’re going to fail,” he said. “If we go into this understanding what he need to do to avoid those mistakes, we have a good shot at doing something that fits into our community. We do not need to have a dispensary on every corner of our city or a cultivator or manufacturer in every building.”

Velazquez told everyone that he strongly supports the 600-foot rule to include homes and churches and that while the document is not perfect, it could be adopted and changes made as needed. He said if the ordinance continues to be changed and is not adopted, it will never move forward. He said it was not true, as some believed, that an approved dispensary would be forced to close if a church should move within 600 feet.

“We’ve done a good job here and our next steps are regulations, development agreements, a point system to make sure we can keep moving through this, so we’ve got a lot of work to do,” the mayor said. “Now we’ve got to move forward with it or put an end to it. We can’t keep going every which way because one block was left out of the ordinance.”

Friend asked the mayor about his statement that the regulations would “make the ordinance right,” and said, “Why didn’t we vote on (version) 1, and then go into the regulations? Why have we spent three months coming up with version 2? We should have done this three months ago and we could have been working on the regulations.”

The council continued to wrangle over the minutia of the ordinance, adding back some things and deleting others, and the only actual business that was accomplished was when Klauer made a motion to eliminate the ad hoc committee. Luna seconded it and before the audience knew what was happening the ad hoc committee was no more.

The discussion wrapped up as Epstein called out the list of changes that she said would be made to the ordinance before it is brought back to the next council meeting, Dec. 19. Then there was the question if it would be a first or second read, and if they could vote on it at that time. Klauer wanted it made available for the public to read again. Sims asked to see the ordinance and supporting regulations to make sure the council’s overall vision is addressed. Friend wanted assurance that the council would be able to vote on the ordinance at the next meeting and counsel told him that it could be done if it was agendized as a “second reading and adoption.”

When Velazquez commented that they had not accepted the first reading yet, Epstein told him that they were, in fact, talking about the first reading at that time and had just given staff direction on what changes were to be made to it, essentially making the next meeting a “second reading.”

After Epstein recited the list of changes she would be making to the document, Velazquez glumly commented: “We got to this point with the community agreeing to what we had accomplished. We’re taking that back and making changes. I want to make sure we’re all clear on that because that’s going to be a different feeling throughout the community. We got the consensus from a lot of people who were absolutely against it. I have the feeling that’s going to be gone.”

Luna took issue with Velazquez, saying that she believed after months of community input, no one’s efforts were in vain, and that they would continue to work together. Velazquez said that while he appreciated her view, he could no longer support what the council was doing, but would, however, abide with the majority.

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]