Is Fresno ready for recreational pot?

A Fresno County sheriff’s lieutenant examines a carton of confinscated marijuana buds as a load of uprooted plants is hauled to a waiting trailer during a 2013 raid at Behymer Avenue east of Willow Avenue near northeast Fresno.
A Fresno County sheriff’s lieutenant examines a carton of confinscated marijuana buds as a load of uprooted plants is hauled to a waiting trailer during a 2013 raid at Behymer Avenue east of Willow Avenue near northeast Fresno. Fresno Bee file

Other Valley cities are taking steps to ban marijuana shops as a just-in-case measure should Proposition 64 be approved by California voters on Nov. 8.

But Fresno might be caught unprepared for the legalization of recreational marijuana, despite already having a prohibition in place on medical marijuana dispensaries.

The issue of the city’s readiness arose when medical marijuana advocate George Boyadjian asked the City Council last week to reconsider its ban on medical marijuana cultivation and dispensaries. Boyadjian, president and founder of 420 College and its affiliate, FTG Management Group, pointed to new state laws regulating medical marijuana.

“We’d like to see the city change the ordinances that ban businesses,” Boyadjian said Thursday. “We’d like to see that not only for patients, but for tax generation for the city of Fresno.”

Under revisions to state laws, medical marijuana dispensaries cannot apply for a state license unless they first have a local permit from the city or county in which they wish to operate, Boyajian said.

“What we want is for the city to write and pass an ordinance that works for the city and its residents,” he said.

Boyadjian’s request prompted a question from Councilman Clint Olivier, who noted polls showing that Proposition 64 is polling well and is expected to pass. Proposition 64 would legalize the recreational use of marijuana for adults ages 21 years and older.

“How are we going to absorb or cope with it?” Olivier asked. “Is this city about to be caught flat-footed if this passes, or are preparations in the works to deal with it?”

“It seems to me that (under) Prop. 64,  as a city, we specifically have to act to prohibit it, but that we don’t have to act to allow” businesses that would cultivate or sell marijuana for recreational use, Olivier added. “So does Mr. Boyadjian need to come and see us?”

Fresno City Attorney Douglas Sloan said his office is looking at crafting a possible ban on recreational marijuana businesses. Otherwise, he confirmed Olivier’s interpretation: that even with considerable regulation under state law, marijuana for recreational use “would be widely available in the city of Fresno,” Sloan said.

“If Prop. 64 passes and we do nothing, dispensaries would be allowed.”

Other cities take action

In recent months, communities including Clovis, Hanford and Lemoore have taken action to prohibit recreational-pot businesses in their jurisdictions as a pre-emptive measure, expanding the bans they already have in place against medical marijuana dispensaries.

Olivier said it’s his understanding that while Fresno officially prohibits medical marijuana dispensaries, “there are actually six or seven, plus another 30 or 40 delivery services, currently operating on the black market, (so) people who need it for medicinal purposes are forced to procure that medicine from a black-market source.  It’s not a secret.”

While marijuana cultivation, possession and use remain illegal under federal laws, Proposition 64 would legalize growing, distributing, selling and use of marijuana, and allow possession of up to one ounce of the product by people age 21 and older. It also establishes mechanisms for regulating, licensing and taxing marijuana businesses.

It allows cities and counties to adopt their own local rules, including outright bans on cultivation and sales.

In addition to existing local and state sales taxes, marijuana sales would be subject to an excise tax of 15 percent, while cultivation would be taxed at a rate of $9.25 per ounce of flowers (the potent bud portion of the plant) and $2.75 per ounce for the less potent leaves.

An analysis of Proposition 64 by the state legislative analyst indicates that the potential revenue from state and local taxes on marijuana could amount to $1 billion or more per year. Additionally, state and local governments could realize tens of millions of dollars in savings because fewer people would be held in prisons or jails.

Marijuana businesses, however, would still be at risk for prosecution under enforcement of federal laws by the U.S. Department of Justice.

What will Fresno County do?

Fresno City Manager Bruce Rudd said one concern he has, regardless of what action Fresno might take to regulate or restrict marijuana businesses, is potential inaction by Fresno County because of the number of county jurisdiction “islands” within the Fresno city limits.

“It will be incumbent upon the county, no matter what Fresno or Clovis do, (to do something) or we can find one of these dispensaries popping up on county islands,” Rudd said.

City Councilwoman Esmeralda Soria said, “It’s ironic that we would have in statute something that bans medical marijuana, but recreational is just carte blanche.”

“I wouldn’t want something near a school or a child-care facility,” she added. “It’s our responsibility to think about land-use policies  and look at what other jurisdictions are doing with this issue.”

Proposition 64 would generally prohibit marijuana businesses within 600 feet of schools and day-care or youth centers unless a local ordinance allows it. They would also not be allowed to sell alcohol or tobacco.

Boyadjian said he at one time operated a medical marijuana collective in Fresno until he was sued by the city in 2009, “and ever since then I haven’t done anything in Fresno at all.” But, he added, “it’s my ultimate goal” to open a marijuana business if Proposition 64 passes, in addition to the construction and auto repair businesses he now operates.

Boyadjian expressed hope that Fresno would develop sensible regulations rather than adopt an outright ban on dispensaries.

“It doesn’t make sense,” he said. “Times have changed, and I think they have to.  If Fresno doesn’t do something, Fresno gets left behind. Other cities will be generating revenue, and having no rule just creates a mess here in Fresno.”

“To avoid creating the mess, they have to take action now,” he added. “Sooner or later, Fresno is going to pass it; it’s just a matter of time. But I don’t think they’re going to ban it outright.”