The Visalia City Council isn’t taking any quick steps towards changing the city’s Municipal Code regarding recreational marijuana sales.
At the February 21 council meeting, the council members discussed changes to the Visalia Municipal Code (VMC) that were needed in response to Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act. Currently, the code only regulates medical marijuana.
The city council voted 4-0, with Councilmember Greg Collins absent, to revisit the topic of a municipal code update in six months.
Recreational use of marijuana became legal effective immediately when voters approved Proposition 64 last November; however, the legal sale and taxation of marijuana cannot occur until Jan. 1, 2018.
As a result, no city or county can ban the personal use or indoor cultivation of pot; during the waiting period, cities and counties are able to implement regulations limiting or banning commercial activity.
Attorney Nicolas Cardella and Visalia Police Captain Brian Winter outlined Visalia’s options and spoke about the effect legalization has had in Colorado and Washington, two states that voted to legalize pot in 2012.
Cardella suggested that if Visalia wanted to allow the commercial sale of pot that it use the Massage Establishment Ordinance or the Adult Oriented Business Ordinance as a template. Many of the restrictions imposed on these businesses would work for an establishment that sells pot. Cardella said that the city also had to make revisions to its medical marijuana ordinance to comply with Proposition 64.
Cardella then used Pueblo County, Colorado, as an appropriate case study to highlight the drawbacks and benefits of the commercialization of pot. That county has adopted some of the most lenient regulations involving the sale of marijuana and has become a case study for the entire country.
“[W]ith a population of 108,000, Pueblo is the most populous city in Pueblo County. After the county adopted some of the most marijuana-friendly business rules in the state, the Posada Homeless Services Organization, a homeless services organization in the city of Pueblo, reported that the number of homeless served more than doubled in two years, from 2,444 in 2013 to 5,486 in 2016,” a Visalia city staff report stated.
The Posada Homeless Services Organization could not definitively connect the increase in homelessness to the commercialization of pot.
According to the organization’s study, the homeless staying at the shelter said they came to Pueblo to “use pot legally.”
Others have attributed the rise in homelessness to the so-called Amsterdam effect. This hypothesis claims that “when a vice is only legal in one place, everyone goes to that place to partake in the vice, which means that place bears a disproportionate share of the externalities.”
Representatives from shelters in Washington and Oregon, another state where pot is legal, claim to have seen no evidence that clients are being drawn to their shelters because of their states’ decisions to legalize the recreational use of marijuana.
Pueblo County also experienced significant economic benefits from allowing the sale of pot. The county’s unemployment rate dropped more dramatically than in any other major Colorado metropolitan area, and over $3 million in marijuana tax revenues were generated over the past two years.
Winter presented the public safety drawbacks of legalizing pot.
According to studies done in Colorado and Washington, Winter said, both states have had an increase in young people smoking pot. There has also been an increase in driving under the influence, and traffic fatalities involving marijuana.
There have also been an increase in emergency room visits and hospitalizations, especially due to edible forms of the drug. There has also been an increase in the number of explosions resulting from the process of extracting honey oil from marijuana.
Councilmember Steve Nelsen commented that the collateral damage of crime and death may not outweigh the economic benefit.
Representatives for Cannacanhelp, a medical marijuana dispensary based in Goshen, disputed some of the research.
Philip Bourdette, a lawyer for the organization, said that there was no scientific evidence that the increase in homeless in Pueblo was a result of the legalization of pot.
He also said that the people running the study were biased against the legalization of marijuana, adding that prohibition created a huge black market for alcohol — and the same will happen with marijuana if it can’t be sold legally.
“You will know where they are if you license pot,” Bourdette said. “If the city regulates pot instead of prohibits it, the city will be in better shape.”
Bardell suggested a citizens committee to help make the final decision.
Councilmember Phil Cox agreed with Bardell’s proposal for a citizens committee, and stated the issue requires more study.
Nelsen suggested that the committee be comprised of legal and health experts, public safety officials, and Visalia citizens, preferring information from local experts and residents over studies from other states.
He stated he wanted to hear the good, bad and ugly pertaining to this issue — not just the economic benefit, and that he wants to do what is best for the community and best for the children.
Wes Hardin, an employee and board member of Cannacanhelp, reminded the council of California’s trailblazing status with marijuana — one that eclipses Colorado’s. California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996.
Mayor Warren Gubler reminded the council that marijuana was still illegal at the federal level, and wanted to also note that Visalians voted against Proposition 64.
He said that Visalia did not need this type of commercial activity and that he believed in the Amsterdam effect.
He also said he believed legalizing the sale of pot was a step backwards in their efforts to alleviate the local homeless issue.
Council member Bob Link stated that he was not ready to make a decision about the commercialization of pot and was curious how Visalia voted on Proposition 64.
Visalia voted similar to the county as a whole with 46% voting in favor of legalizing pot and 54% voting against the proposition. Farmersville, Lindsay and Woodlake are the three communities that voted in favor of legalizing pot.
Nelsen agreed with Link and suggested that the city council table the issue for six months while the city staff collect more data and possibly form a citizens committee.
The council was also leaning towards watching what happens in other cities around California who decide to legalize the sale of marijuana.