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Seeing green: Local cities take differing stances on recreational marijuana while county addresses cultivation

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The possibility of legalized marijuana makes Paso Robles so nervous that the city’s banning every recreational pot thing it legally can before California voters get to make a decision about it on Nov. 8.

On Election Day, the state will make a choice on Proposition 64—or the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA)—determining whether the state should follow in the footsteps of Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska to legalize and tax recreational marijuana. It needs a simple majority to pass, and according to a recent poll by the LA Times, it has that: 58 percent of those polled supported the measure.

If it were to pass, the consequences for SLO County would be significant: A new industry could blossom across the region for marijuana cultivators, distributors, and consumers.

And Paso Robles wants to get ahead of it. Without any local ordinances on the books addressing recreational marijuana, city officials are concerned about what could happen in Paso if the measure passes. Who will start planning cannabis-related businesses right away—spending money, even buying property—and what kind of position could that put the city in later on?

“There might be legal challenges,” City Manager Tom Frutchey explained to the Paso Robles City Council on Sept. 6. “Should we do nothing—not take a stand—folks could come in and purchase warehouse space where they want to start a cultivation operation for recreational [marijuana] purposes.”

City Attorney Iris Yang then carried the baton.

“Without any kind of local control in place, the council could be faced with a hard question from [those] people who had made a significant investment,” Yang said.

Out of that abundance of caution, city staff crafted an ordinance that bans brick-and-mortar marijuana dispensaries in city limits, deliveries of non-medical marijuana, and outdoor cultivation.

The ordinance was adopted by a unanimous City Council vote on Sept. 20. The city said it will start off with the full-scale ban and then, if the measure passes, do community outreach to determine whether looser rules are desired.

But some residents are already questioning the hard stance.

Local landscape architect Tony Keith urged the City Council to be more open-minded about allowing marijuana dispensaries in the city for the economic benefit. He referred to the spike of issued building permits in Colorado after marijuana was legalized in 2012.

“We need this to rebound our industry from 2008 when the economy crashed,” Keith argued.

Addressing medical marijuana separately from recreational marijuana was also a request from both residents and City Council members. The adopted ordinance regulates both uses of marijuana.

Paso allows for medical marijuana delivery services, but like everywhere else in SLO County, it doesn’t allow brick-and-mortar dispensaries within city limits.

For patients who need cannabis, the only legal way to get the medicine is via delivery.

Resident Sunni Mullinax, who spoke with emotion at the council’s Sept. 6 meeting about how marijuana was “lifesaving” during her chemotherapy for colon cancer, told the City Council that she does not trust a delivery service to provide her medicine.

“I will not rely on the pizza guy to deliver me medicine. That’s the way I look at it,” she said. “You have no idea what product you’re getting. When you have cancer, it’s imperative you have the cleanest product you can. It needs to be organic and no pesticides.”

Mullinax instead drives two hours south to Goleta to find a dispensary. She asked the City Council to allow a medical marijuana dispensary in a zoned area away from schools and residences.

“Medical marijuana is in our lives,” Mullinax said. “I can’t even imagine what other patients go through, like veterans.”

Many other public commenters echoed a similar sentiment. The testimony compelled the City Council to reconsider its knee-jerk medical marijuana policies. Councilmembers voted on Sept. 20 to establish an advisory committee of community stakeholders to workshop new medical marijuana policies.

While Paso approaches marijuana with caution and apprehension, the coastal city of Grover Beach has chosen to embrace it. 

The city is in the process of crafting an ordinance to welcome the commercial marijuana industry, allowing brick-and-mortar dispensaries, cultivation, testing, and deliveries. The City Council voted to send a measure to the general election ballot that would place a local tax on medical marijuana (5 percent on gross sales) and recreational marijuana (10 percent on gross sales), if Proposition 64 passes.

“Grover Beach has decided we aren’t going to put our head in the sand,” Mayor John Shoals said at a recent City Council candidates forum. “We are going to say this is a growth industry.”

Other cities in the county appear to be waiting until after the election before making decisions about recreational marijuana.

Meanwhile, SLO County is busy regulating medical marijuana cultivation because hundreds of commercial-scale grows were discovered in the California Valley.

The county also continues to ban brick-and-mortar medical marijuana dispensaries. Last November, the Board of Supervisors denied an appeal by Ethnobotanica to open a dispensary in Nipomo. The board voted 3-2 against the project, arguing that the dispensary posed a public safety risk. Ethnobotanica sued the county in January for its decision. 

Staff Writer Peter Johnson is stone-cold sober. Reach him at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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