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Plans for three pot stores, 70,000 square feet of cultivation, await SLO City Council approval

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A recreational marijuana industry in San Luis Obispo is one vote away from becoming a reality.

On March 29, the SLO Planning Commission signed off on a set of draft cannabis regulations that allow for up to three recreational storefront dispensaries, 70,000 total square feet of indoor commercial cultivation, and a variety of other cannabis industry activities within city limits.

CANNABIS IN SLO TOWN On May 1, the SLO City Council will consider adopting cannabis regulations that would allow for up to three recreational brick-and-mortar dispensaries in the city. - FILE PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMAN
  • File Photo By Dylan Honea-bauman
  • CANNABIS IN SLO TOWN On May 1, the SLO City Council will consider adopting cannabis regulations that would allow for up to three recreational brick-and-mortar dispensaries in the city.

If given the green light by the City Council on May 1, SLO would become the first city in the county—and the only city between Salinas and Santa Barbara, other than Lompoc—to allow the establishment of recreational brick-and-mortar stores since California voters passed Proposition 64.

Hopeful cannabis businesses could then apply to the city for permits starting July 1.

"We 'learn by doing,'" Planning Commissioner Hemalata Dandekar said at the hearing, referencing Cal Poly's classic motto. "We're going to be impacted by [legalized cannabis] if dispensaries are here or not. ... What's presented to us is a limited venture. It's modest. We can learn from this venture."

SLO's proposed ordinance would accommodate cannabis retailers (including delivery services), nurseries, indoor cultivators, distributors, manufacturers, testers, and microbusinesses (an operation that includes all aspects of the supply chain) on certain zoned properties.

The commission voted in favor of a zoning scheme that would keep all cannabis operations in six specific areas of the city—called "overlay zones." Those would be located on Higuera Street, south of downtown; South Broad Street near both Orcutt Road and Industrial Way; and the area near the SLO County Airport. Any dispensary or cannabis business that's open to the public must also be buffered—1,000 feet away from schools and 300 feet from residential zones and public parks—within the overlay zone, per the commission's recommendation.

"You're not going to see it. You're not going to smell it. It's not going to be worshipped," Commissioner Nicholas Osterbur said. "It's tucked away in these overlay zones."

The city is aiming to cap indoor commercial cultivation at 70,000 total square feet (measured by the size of the plant canopy)—with no one business allowed to grow more than 10,000 square feet of cannabis. In terms of water and energy use, 70,000 square feet of cultivation is equivalent to "about four laundromats," according to SLO Community Development Director Michael Codron.

"It seems like the right number from the standpoint of supporting a local chain of supply, not crowding out other business types, and being the right size relative to its energy and water use," Codron said.

Under the regulations, on-site cannabis consumption is banned as well as events serving cannabis products. Cannabis manufacturing using volatile substances is also prohibited.

In processing business applications, only storefront retailers and microbusinesses would require the Planning Commission's review. Other permits would be issued through the Community Development Department. SLO plans to hire a consultant to help it rank incoming cannabis business applications.

Not all of the planning commissioners supported the permissive direction of the city with cannabis. Commission Chairman Chuck Stevenson and Vice Chairman John Fowler voted against the regulations. Neither was in favor of allowing recreational dispensaries to establish in SLO.

"My concern is the city of SLO will be become sort of the drug central on the Central Coast for recreational marijuana," Stevenson said. "I'm very concerned about the message that will send to our community, and especially our youth."

Fowler expressed a similar sentiment, and shared concerns about the city's ability to enforce laws surrounding cannabis use.

"Some compare cannabis to alcohol, however, I'd argue we have pretty good infrastructure for monitoring alcohol. Our criminal system knows how to deal with alcohol abuse," Fowler said. "Cannabis on the other hand—it's extremely difficult, if not impossible, to hold [abusers] accountable."

The dissenting commissioners weren't alone in their qualms. Jody Belsher, a SLO resident and creator of a 2015 documentary The Other Side of Cannabis: Negative Effects of Marijuana On Our Youth, asked the commission to craft a more restrictive ordinance.

"As a parent of a child severely harmed by marijuana use, I implore you to limit or ban dispensaries and grows and consider the damages," Belsher said. "Youth are greatly at risk. The risk is on their developing brains, from adolescence all the way to age 30."

But other commissioners argued that banning cannabis sales in the city would not stop residents from getting it.

"If we do not have a process in place to ensure people in the community can purchase marijuana, they'll get it some place else," Commissioner Ronald Malak said. "This gives us an opportunity to control that—what they are purchasing, what tourists are purchasing, what adults are purchasing."

Dandekar agreed.

"It's not that difficult to bring marijuana into our neighborhoods. Pretty soon Amazon's going to start delivering it," she said. "In many ways, the horse is out of the barn on this." Δ

Staff Writer Peter Johnson can be reached at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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