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City to Revisit Ban on Medical Pot Sales

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The debate over the financial benefits of marijuana sales is nothing new, but in Petaluma, the city's budget crisis has quickly reinvigorated talks of whether to allow medical marijuana dispensaries in town. And while the city weighs whether pot clubs are right for Petaluma, businesses are already lining up, hoping local attitudes will change so they can bring their service – and tax revenue – to town.

The City Council voted to ban medical cannabis dispensaries within city limits in 2007 on a 4-2 vote. But some council members have recently talked of reversing the ban, saying the city's budget crisis requires that every revenue option be on the table. At the council's recent goal-setting session, Tiffany Renée and Teresa Barrett reportedly asked the council to consider reversing the ban due in part to the sales tax revenue that would reach city's ailing coffers. The council last week decided to go ahead with a 12 percent cut in the city's budget next year, including possible staff layoffs.

When the ban was passed in 2007, supporters – including the police chief at the time – said that it was necessary to keep crime and violence out of town. But some now say that evidence of crime may be weak, and that the medical pot sales are a reality that other cities are cashing in on.

"When we have had to cut $4 million from the budget, it's hard to say that we can't look at one option for revenue," said Gabe Kearney.

"When we look at (sales) leakage, we are also leaking sales tax revenue from people going to Cotati or Sebastopol for marijuana," said Kearney, adding that allowing dispensaries is "not an ideal solution, but we're not dealing with ideal (economic) times."

Teresa Barrett, who voted against the ban in 2007, said she is "even more comfortable now" because of the "years of experience throughout the county with dispensaries."

"We're closing our doors to possible income sources," she said.

California's sales tax rate is 9.25 percent, with about 1 percent of that going to cities. While there are no reliable estimates for how much money dispensaries would bring to Petaluma, City Manager John Brown said that he has asked for a staff report on the issue soon.

"What I committed to would be to have an objective analysis prepared for the council," said Brown, who added that comprehensive analysis would be done by the police department and may not come forward until after this summer's budget hearings, which take precedence.

Sebastopol, a city of 7,379, voted to allow dispensaries in 2005. Its single dispensary, Peace in Medicine, generates about $50,000 in tax revenue for the city each year. Los Angeles, by comparison, approved a 5 percent local tax rate for marijuana (rather than the standard one percent), and the city's 70 dispensaries are expected to generate $10 million per year.

Medical marijuana advocates say that cannabis helps people that suffer from chronic pain deal with their condition in a way that lets them lead more active lives than they would using traditional pharmaceuticals.

In November, proponents of the statewide ballot initiative Proposition 19 tried but failed to legalize recreational use, pointing to estimates that the cash crop could bring in $1.3 billion annually for California.

Federal law does not recognize marijuana for medical or recreational uses, and trumps California's laws allowing dispensaries. But President Obama has de-emphasized raids of dispensaries that were common in the past.

While the makeup of Petaluma's council has changed since the ban, some council members said they still favor it.

"I don't see any need at this point to change that," said Mike Healy, adding that he would be "inclined to agree" with the opinion that a dispensary in town could increase crime and violence.

That opinion came in a police department report requested shortly before the council approved the ban in 2007. Then-police chief Steve Hood linked several shootings and robberies in town to medical marijuana trade. Before the ban, a residence acting as a dispensary on Bond Street caused concern among neighbors and was the site of a non-fatal shooting of a police officer.

Hood also said that the cost of needed enforcement and drug prevention programs might be more than the revenue generated by dispensaries.

This week Dan Fish, the city's current police chief, reiterated the 2007 police department report. "That recommendation with me remains," he said.

"For me, marijuana is not about the money. It can't be about the money," said Fish, saying that the 2007 opinion "had nothing to do with economics" of revenue, but rather addressed law and quality of life issues.

Fish said that the previous dispensary on Bond Street had a "number of significant calls for service."

But other cities have tested the waters and say they have succeeded in making cannabis providers a safe, respected part of the community.

"If a city has a regulated process, that by itself weeds out the fly-by-night operations," said Robert Jacob, executive director of the Peace in Medicine dispensary in Sebastopol. Jacob said that cities where crime has been linked to dispensaries are cities that have "failed to regulate" the clubs.

"When Petaluma had no regulations, of course the local jurisdiction is going to have issues," he said, referencing the Bond Street dispensary. "It's about having a competitive process in place for (dispensaries) to apply," said Jacob, whose application for a club beat out many others because of his willingness to cooperate with all of the city's demands.

Sebastopol police chief Jeff Weaver said that one serious incident has occurred at Peace in Medicine, an after-hours failed armed-robbery attempt in May 2009. But Weaver said that the business has security guards and other safeguards, and has not had a major day-to-day impact on the police department.

"Like any business, if it's well run, you'll have less community impacts," he said.

In Petaluma, some say that aside from the economic benefit, many social issues need to be resolved, including whether the dispensaries would increase recreational use or use among children. But in their support of reversing the ban, proponents say the economic factor, if not others, is crystal clear.

Jacob said that he has long wanted to expand to Petaluma and elsewhere in Sonoma County.

"But we're not a pushy organization," he said. "We like to wait until we're welcome in a community."

News Hawk- Jacob Husky 420 MAGAZINE
Source: pressdemocrat.com
Author: Philip Riley
Contact: Contact Us
Copyright: PressDemocrat.com
Website: City to revisit ban on medical pot sales
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