After nearly two hours of often fierce debate Thursday, the Fresno City Council voted 4-3 to impose heavy restrictions on cannabis cultivation and move forward with a ban on marijuana dispensaries, deliveries and public use.
Dozens of comments were offered by a wide variety of groups. Fresno’s faith and law-enforcement communities defended the ban, while a raucous collection of lawyers, veterans, medical cannabis patients and recreational users spoke against it.
Marijuana has been a hot-button issue at the city-government level across the state in the wake of voter approval of Proposition 64 in November.
The initiative, passed by a wide margin statewide and also favored by voters in much of Fresno, allowed those 21 and older to use marijuana and grow up to six plants in private residences. It legalized recreational dispensaries, though with the caveat that city and county governments had until Jan. 1, 2018, to ban them within their boundaries.
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That was the backdrop to Thursday, which drew a packed house and created a level of drama not often seen in a regular council meeting.
Debate reached its zenith as Councilman Oliver Baines – a former police officer who was publicly on the fence on the issue – delivered a powerful address on why he now had decided to oppose the ban. His comments drew several rounds of loud applause from the pro-marijuana side of the room.
Councilwoman Esmeralda Soria, who also had been on the fence, agreed with Baines. Council President Clint Olivier – the only member of the council to publicly oppose the ban before Thursday – made it three against the ban.
Council members Baines, Olivier and Soria opposed the ban, while Bredefeld, Brandau, Caprioglio and Chavez voted in favor.
But the anti-pot package, championed for six months by Councilman Garry Bredefeld and co-authored by Mayor Lee Brand, received crucial swing votes from Councilmen Luis Chavez and Paul Caprioglio. Councilman Steve Brandau told cannabis-using patients in the crowd that he sympathized with them, but said he supported Bredefeld’s proposal for public-safety reasons.
Caprioglio spoke only briefly to agree with Brandau. Chavez was one of the only people in the room not to say a word on the subject.
Here’s what the winning affirmative vote means, as explained to The Bee by City Attorney Douglas Sloan after the vote:
▪ Two separate items were approved – an amendment to an existing city ordinance on cultivation and a resolution asking staff to draw up a ban on dispensaries, deliveries and public use.
▪ The amendment changes Fresno’s existing ban on cultivation to allow for personal-use growth of up to six plants inside a locked private residence – a right granted by the state through Proposition 64’s passage.
This amendment will come before the council in a week for final approval. It then would go into effect after 30 days.
The dispensary and delivery question will be answered much later, as that issue now goes to the city Planning Department for public hearings and meetings. Still, the department must draw up its ordinance amendment and present it to the council by Nov. 1. That would lead to another council vote.
Council members could move in the other direction by then, but that appears unlikely given Thursday’s 4-3 decision. The ban still would need to meet Proposition 64’s Jan. 1 deadline.
Sloan clarified that marijuana deliveries already are barred in the city. The Bee has reported that deliveries were legal based on comments by city staff. More than 40 such services operate daily in Fresno.
Public use, meanwhile, is probably a moot issue as it is banned by the proposition.
Brand previously estimated that the city could make up to $10 million annually from cannabis, but the staff report Thursday accompanying his and Bredefeld’s proposal shied from attaching any dollar amounts to the issue.
Thursday’s fireworks started early, as the buildup to the vote was turned on its head when Olivier surprised the council by proposing Fresno allow dispensaries within its limits – something the city has been opposed to for 20 years and precisely the opposite of what Bredefeld’s motion had hoped to achieve.
“I believe the citizens of Fresno have given us the power to regulate marijuana and the power to break the monopoly and end the violence of criminal gangs on our streets,” Olivier said.
Applause rang out as Olivier offered his counter resolution. Soria seconded it “for discussion purposes only.”
Brandau asked for clarification, saying he was “thrown off.”
“That was my intention,” Olivier interjected with a laugh, again drawing applause.
Brandau ultimately would motion to cancel Olivier’s proposal, and the council held one vote regarding the original ban proposal.
Most of the debate centered around key points duplicated for decades in cities across California.
Medical cannabis patients – including veterans, lawyers and doctors – extolled the plant’s virtues. It has helped them where other medicines could not. It got them off dangerous and addictive opioids. It allows them to sleep.
A few college students also stepped up, saying that smoking weed had no effect on their studies. Alcohol, methamphetamine and high-fructose corn syrup are far more dangerous to the city’s children, they added.
Pastors countered by arguing it was the city’s duty to protect youths from the evils of marijuana. They shared stories of caring for addicts in their church and of drug-related violence in the city’s poorest corners.
Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer echoed many of his previous statements on the matter. Cities that have allowed pot have seen an increase in underage use, he said. Dispensaries have been frequent burglary and robbery targets. Modern cannabis has significantly higher THC, the principle mind-altering ingredient in marijuana, which Dyer said can lead to greater psychoactive effects.
Bredefeld, saying that he also was speaking for Brand, agreed with many of Dyer’s points. He stressed the dangers to children and said cannabis use has increased car crashes attributed to impaired driving.
Baines also frequently found validity in Dyer’s concerns. But he ultimately sided with Olivier after agreeing with several of the council president’s arguments, specifically that imposing a ban gives criminal organizations a monopoly on the millions generated by pot sales and smacks of early rhetoric used to pass the deeply flawed prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s.
I can’t do something that cements illegal activity.
Councilman Oliver Baines on why he opposed a ban on marijuana dispensaries
“I can’t do something that cements illegal activity,” Baines said.
He also agreed with Olivier’s point that alcohol is potentially more dangerous to society, but the city nonetheless profits on its trade.
“I bet you it’s easier for a young person to buy marijuana than it is to buy alcohol,” Baines said.
If the council chose to carefully regulate the cannabis trade, Baines said, the city could avoid many of the evils cited by those favoring the ban.
Baines also noted that, unlike many issues, he knows exactly how the majority of voters of California, the city at large and his specific council district feel about the subject.
Those within Fresno’s city limits voted in favor of Proposition 64, though Fresno County as a whole opposed it. Bredefeld’s and Brandau’s districts were against recreational marijuana; voters in the other five districts were in favor.
Baines mused that sometimes, council members think they know better than their constituents. He isn’t afraid, he said, to vote that way. But ultimately, he wondered if this ban was an attempt to undermine the will of the people.