When it comes to buying pot for pleasure, Fresno won’t be on the recreational map

Fresno City Council members Clint Olivier, left, Oliver Baines and Garry Bredefeld, right, listen to public testimony before voting on a law to prohibit recreational marijuana dispensaries and other commercial cannabis operations in the city on Thursday, Aug. 31.
Fresno City Council members Clint Olivier, left, Oliver Baines and Garry Bredefeld, right, listen to public testimony before voting on a law to prohibit recreational marijuana dispensaries and other commercial cannabis operations in the city on Thursday, Aug. 31. tsheehan@fresnobee.com

Retail marijuana dispensaries and other businesses related to recreational use of marijuana will be barred from setting up shop in Fresno after the City Council voted 4-3 Thursday to prohibit such establishments.

Proposition 64, approved by California voters in November 2016, legalized the possession and recreational use of marijuana. It also legalized the sale of marijuana for recreational use starting Jan. 1, 2018 – but gave cities and counties the authority to regulate or prohibit commercial cannabis operations in their jurisdictions.

Thursday’s vote was the latest step in efforts backed by District 6 Councilman Garry Bredefeld and Mayor Lee Brand to quash the possibility of dispensaries before the start of 2018, when the state plans to start licensing dispensaries for nonmedical marijuana to operate in the state.

Councilmen Bredefeld, Steve Brandau, Paul Caprioglio and Luis Chavez voted for the commercial prohibition, while Council President Clint Olivier and council members Esmeralda Soria and Oliver Baines voted no. The vote was identical to an initial vote June 22 to begin the process of amending the Fresno Municipal Code.

It marked the first reading of the ban. The code amendment still must return to the City Council for a second reading and final approval, most likely at the council’s Sept. 21 meeting.

The ban will apply to “any cultivation, manufacture, processing, storing, laboratory testing, labeling, transportation, distribution, delivery or sale of marijuana” for recreational use. Testing labs in industrial areas of the city would be allowed, provided that marijuana testing represents 20 percent or less of their business.

Prior to Thursday’s vote on the ban, the council approved a proposal by Olivier to seek a consultant to help the city study issues related to marijuana and Proposition 64. The consultant would be asked to examine how other cities are dealing with medicinal and recreational cannabis use, sales and cultivation, and the potential for revenue from licensing and taxing cultivation and sales.

Soria, Baines and Caprioglio voted for Olivier’s consultant proposal, which calls for the mayor to appoint a three-member council subcommittee to steer the consultant-selection process. Bredefeld and Brandau voted against the proposal.

Brand gave his mayoral support to Olivier. “We disagree on a ban,” Brand said Thursday, “but he’s asking for a consultant. This is not a question of whether you’re for or against a ban.  I think we need to examine a lot of areas that we simply don’t have answers for.”

“This is a huge issue across the state, (and) billions of dollars are being spent,” Brand added. “We need to at least take a look and see what the implications are.” But Brand said he still wanted the council to pass a ban on recreational pot dispensaries now.

Olivier said he believes a consultant is necessary to so the council can avoid voting for a dispensary ban based on “fiction.”

“There is legislation before this body that is based on panic and one guy’s fear,” Olivier said of Bredefeld’s ban. “A consultant would have helped us on this and would have drafted a better piece of legislation than what we have right now.”

While the council approved the search for a consultant, a majority of the members also favored moving forward with a ban now. “This council debated this several months ago,” Bredefeld said. “I don’t think we need to re-litigate it.”

Caprioglio said the council has the freedom to modify its actions depending on what a consultant may recommend in the coming months. “Nothing is set in stone here,” he said.

Olivier, who has advocated for the city to allow recreational marijuana businesses and reap the potential benefits of taxes and fees on sales and cultivation, said he believed “waiting (for a consultant’s assessment) would be the best thing to do.”

“I believe the (ban) is flawed. I believe it’s rush to judgment, a knee-jerk reaction, …” Olivier said. But, he added, “I believe in the sincerity (of Bredefeld and Brand). There has been a lot of passion poured out on both sides of this.”

Compared to a raucous hearing in June at which members of the public spoke for more than two hours, Thursday’s hearing was a mild-mannered affair. Public comments were cut short just before noon so the council could vote before several members had to leave for already-scheduled lunch meetings.

But Brand reminded the council and the audience that the ban only deals with recreational uses of marijuana. Existing city laws prohibit medical marijuana dispensaries – a subject of many of the comments from the public in recent weeks. Brand said he expects the council to revisit the city’s position on medicinal cannabis in the coming months.

The medical use of marijuana has been allowed in California since 1996, when voters approved Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act. But prior to Proposition 64, recreational use of pot remained outlawed. Notwithstanding the two ballot measures, marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

A Fresno ordinance to cap at six the number of plants that can be cultivated for personal use, and regulate where and how marijuana can be grown by residents, was initially approved in June but has yet to clear a final vote. The second reading of that ordinance, also backed by Bredefeld, has been beset by delays, including infighting among council members.