Will Visalia vote to toke?

Cannabis, for medical and recreational use, has become widespread in California since a series of laws legalized it over the past 25 years.

Except, that is, in Visalia.

That could be changing. Visalia took the first steps this week in approving a ballot measure that would allow the city to collect tax revenues from cannabis sales – if, that is, a dispensary is ever approved to operate here. But it’s something.

The move clearly recognizes a change in public perception. Recent resident surveys by the city indicate a majority of residents would approve a cannabis dispensary. Visalia is trying to place itself in position to capitalize on that change with collection of tax revenue.

How much money is that? What are the benefits for approving cannabis sales? What are the risks? What is the likelihood a cannabis dispensary will set up shop in Visalia?

Those are some of the questions that will be posed in the Tulare County Voices @ 210 forum, “Up in Smoke?: Cannabis in our communities,” on Tuesday, June 11, 7 p.m. at 210 W. Center.

Tulare County Voices at 210 is a monthly forum co-sponsored by the Visalia Times-Delta and First Presbyterian Church to examine issues of interest to the community. This month’s issue will explore the changing nature of attitudes to cannabis in our communities and if pot dispensaries have lived up to their financial benefit hype. It would be hard to miss the trend. Cannabis use has entered the mainstream. A recent survey noted that the number nationally of daily cannabis users last year exceeded the number of daily alcohol users in the U.S. for the first time.

Swimming mostly upstream against the trend, Visalia has refused to allow cannabis dispensaries in its city limits. Nearly every neighboring municipality – Tulare, Farmersville, Lindsay, Woodlake, Fresno, Hanford and most recently Porterville – has approved pot dispensaries in their city limits. In fact, there are no fewer than 23 cannabis outlets in Tulare/Kings county municipalities, according to the California Department of Cannabis Control.

None are in Visalia.

The fact is that it is relatively easy for Visalians to obtain cannabis. Not only are dispensaries accessible and widespread – there are five on the east edge of Visalia alone – there are also delivery options, some of which are free.

But here’s the catch: those other municipalities are reaping the financial benefits of allowing cannabis to be sold in their city limits. The city of Hanford, one of the pioneers in establishing cannabis dispensaries, collected more than $1 million for its general fund in 2023, and has already collected more than a three-quarter million dollars this year.

Woodlake was a pioneer in permitting cannabis dispensaries, approving them shortly after the California Legislature decriminalized marijuana in 2016. At the same time, it allowed  municipalities to collect tax revenue from sales of cannabis dispensaries. Woodlake became a model on how to use the new rules to its advantage. In the intervening years, Woodlake has used cannabis tax revenue to create parks, improve infrastructure and support public safety.

Other cities from Tulare to Lemoore have followed suit.

Visalia recognizes that it is missing out on pot revenue. Visalia city officials would say that, first, the revenue does not mean as much to a larger city such as Visalia as it would to a small city such as Woodlake; and second, it’s been good to see how its neighbor cities have managed the extra revenue.

But it’s time to collect.

The TC Voices @ 210 on Tuesday will explore how those decisions have worked out for cities that have dispensaries. Has the increased revenue matched expectations? Have marijuana dispensaries created problems? With crime? With increased drug problems? What have the cities done with the money? Have cannabis dispensaries complied with local, state and federal laws?

What are the laws, federal vs. state, regarding marijuana, anyway?

The issue has become a huge moving target. In fact, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”) reportedly will seek to reclassify marijuana from Schedule I of the federal Controlled Substances Act (the “CSA”) to Schedule III.

During the June 3, Visalia City Council meeting, the council agreed unanimously to put a measure on the November ballot that would ask voters to approve the collection of tax revenue from cannabis sales in the city of Visalia. Mayor Brian Poochigian made clear that the measure was not approving sale of cannabis in Visalia but at the same time, the council seemed to acknowledge that inevitably cannabis sales will be allowed in the city, if only because of a state mandate. Cannabis sales might be forced on Visalia whether it likes it or not, and it needs to be prepared.  In fact, cannabis sales are already taking place in Visalia with delivery services from the outside.

Tuesday’s panel will include experts from local municipalities, a representative from a cannabis dispensary, local law enforcement, and a medical professional to dispel myths and discuss the pros and cons of having pot dispensaries in your city.

Come with questions, and join the community conversation.

Paul Hurley is planning team member of Tulare County Voices @ 210 and a former community conversation editor of the Visalia Times-Delta.

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