By Lani Cleveland
President, Vallejo Patient’s Coalition
On May 26th the Vallejo City Council passed an ordinance to license and regulate four medical marijuana dispensaries in the City of Vallejo. For those of you who are tired of seeing so many medical cannabis dispensaries on Tennessee this was welcome news. To those whose livelihoods are at stake and those who depend on the alternative medications that these dispensaries provide, this was tragic news. Why was this such tragic news? After all, the City will allow four dispensaries within city limits to meet the patient’s needs.
The first reason the decision by the City Council to pass their flawed ordinance is tragic is that it shuts down all of the dispensaries in Vallejo for an undisclosed amount of time. The City can choose to drag out the selection and regulation process for as long as they like, effectively shutting down the medical cannabis industry and the millions of dollars in much needed tax revenue that it brings into Vallejo’s coffers, or rather was bringing in until February when the City Council started refusing the dispensaries taxes. Not to mention the thousands of patients treating ailments from insomnia and anxiety to MS and cancer who will be without their medication or will have to drive to Oakland, San Francisco or Sacramento to get their medicine, or worse yet, into the hands of street dealers.
Why does the City Council feel that it is necessary to shut down all of the dispensaries during their selection process? That is a good question. They say that it creates an equal playing field. To me and many, many others it looks like a tactic to rid Vallejo of dispensaries and their tax dollars, tax dollars that helped pull Vallejo out of bankruptcy. Alternatives were offered to the City Council like grandfathering in those dispensaries who had paid their taxes and then go through a compliance process that would likely lower the number even more and focus on shutting down the blatantly illegal dispensaries. This approach would save the City millions in litigation and enforcement.
In order to reach the Council’s goal of four dispensaries their ordinance encourages dispensary owners to merge their businesses and provides extra points in the selection process for doing so. To the Council it makes sense for these dispensary owners to be forced into merging to stay alive. It seems the council envisions a future of Walmart-like cannabis supercenters, where the patients are herded through as quickly as possible because the lines are so long. With only four dispensaries in town it is likely we will lose most of the taxes from patients who travel from outside of Vallejo. Many only have to drive another 10-20 miles to get to another city with enough dispensaries to handle the traffic, like Sacramento, Oakland and San Francisco. With few options, long wait times and hurried customer service the patients, dispensary owners and employees and tax payers are who will lose the most from this ordinance.
Now let’s talk about the jobs that will be lost. Approximately 150-200 people depend on the income they make, from medical cannabis dispensaries, to survive. That’s 150-200 people who will now be without a job, without a way to support themselves in a town that is already desperate for jobs. I’ve heard it said that not all jobs are good jobs and not all money is good money. This philosophy generally comes from the camp that believes cannabis is a drug and those who provide it are drug dealers. This is an antiquated philosophy, especially in the face of all the research that has been and is being done that proves this herb, this plant, has real medicinal properties. It is recognized in countries such as Israel, Canada, Czech Republic, Mexico, Spain, India and Argentina just to name a few and it is just a matter of time before our government also officially recognizes its benefits. What you currently believe about cannabis will likely continue to be challenged as more research is done and more benefits are found.
To those of us who depend on medical cannabis to lead normal, productive lives, the owners and support staff at these dispensaries are friends, advisors and partners on the path to wellness, not drug dealers. There are countless bars, liquor stores and tobacco stores in this city, businesses that don’t help to heal people but rather do harm dispensing legal drugs. Despite the harm these businesses do, the City Council would never dream of pulling the strong arm tactics with these businesses that they are currently pulling with the medical cannabis dispensaries.
Now imagine you take all of your savings and open a business in Vallejo. You go through all of the right channels, get your business license, go through all the inspections and you pay your taxes. Then one day the city says “Hey we don’t approve of what you are selling so we are going to shut you down.” What would your response be? Most would likely sue to maintain what they had worked so hard for and if they had done everything they were supposed to do they would likely win the lawsuit. Eventually the city will be forced to license more than four dispensaries because of the lawsuits they will most likely lose. A smarter approach would be to sit down with the tax paying dispensaries, the patients and the community to craft an ordinance that will not only work for Vallejo but also save millions of dollars.
The Vallejo Patient’s Coalition and the Measure C 11 have been at every city council meeting since this debacle started, begging the City Council to please take a step back and create an ordinance with the people it will affect the most- the patients, dispensary owners and employees and the tax payers of Vallejo. We do not oppose the City Council’s ordinance because we don’t want regulation, quite the contrary, we oppose it because it is not good, effective regulation for Vallejo. The dispensaries supported the charge to pass Measure C which called for an additional 10% tax on the sales tax that they were already paying. The dispensaries and the patients they serve genuinely care about this community and would like to see regulation put into place that will work long term for everyone it affects.
The Vallejo Patient’s Coalition, Measure C 11 and many members of the community would like to see the City Council reverse their decision and go back to the drawing board. The City Council has been repeatedly invited to the cannabis dispensaries to tour the places they wish to regulate. At the end of May the Lt. Governor of California, Gavin Newsom, took a tour of cannabis farms and met with growers because he is the head of a state commission that is looking into legalization in California, which looks inevitable in 2016. The Lt. Governor felt that this issue was important enough for him to travel hundreds of miles away to see what he was about to regulate but our City Council refuses to drive down the street. They have never been in a dispensary and have no concept what goes into running one yet they are writing regulation on these businesses. The Council is so divided on this issue that the ordinance barely passed with a 4-3 vote.
In 2016 cannabis will be legal in the state of California. The state will take over licensing and regulation of all dispensaries in this state. The way things look at the moment, ordinances that are already in effect will continue to be in effect, except for the licensing and operating standards which will be superseded by the State. This means we will be stuck with an ineffective ordinance that forced the closure of tax paying businesses (until the City Council refused to take their taxes) during a time that Vallejo is still clawing its way from the clutches of bankruptcy. The City Council can create an ordinance now that will be effective and will protect the patients of Vallejo well into legalization. With the state taking over licensing and regulation perhaps it makes more sense to grandfather in the tax paying dispensaries now, avoid the lawsuits the City will likely lose and let the state do the job they are preparing to take over, the state has at least done its homework. At this time Vallejo cannot afford to take the path the City Council is leading us down.
There is currently a petition circulating for a Referendum that will stop the City Council’s ordinance. This is currently our best and least costly way, to the tax payers, to stop the Council’s actions. If you see a signature gatherer, are a registered voter and you would like to stop the City Council from throwing away millions, please take a moment to sign the petition. If you are not a registered voter, now is the time to register and make your voice heard. Let the City Council know that they need to slow down and figure this out with their community.
The Vallejo Patient’s Coalition challenges the City Council to see the light and reverse their decision, go back to the drawing board, have a community forum, create a community advisory board for the ordinance, and tour the businesses that they will be creating regulation for. We simply ask that they take their time with such a complex and polarizing subject. Nobody wants the city to spend money on lawsuits or special elections but it is a human response to fight back when you see injustice. What is happening here is wrong but there is a solution that will work if we can just take a step back.
Note: All opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and not necessarily those of the Vallejo Independent Bulletin