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Should Fresno tax marijuana operations? Voters to decide in November

The Fresno City Council on Thursday voted to put a cannabis business license tax measure on the November ballot.

After hearing pleas both from pastors against allowing medicinal marijuana and from cannabis patients, the council voted 5-1 to approve the resolution.

District 2 Councilman Steve Brandau voted against it because he said it opened up the possibility for future councils to profit from and allow recreational marijuana.

He first moved to include a caveat to tax only medicinal operations but received no support.

Councilman Garry Bredefeld was absent.

Before the vote, District 7 Councilman Clint Olivier, who has been a strong supporter of legalizing cannabis, said Fresno went from being behind on marijuana regulations to being ahead.

"Let’s face it, the city of Fresno is pioneering something," he said. "The city of Fresno is leading the way. It’s on the cutting edge."

The measure will require two-thirds voter approval.

The tax will collect up to 10 percent on receipts and up to $12 per canopy square foot (a term used to measure a cultivation site's size). The city estimates the tax could bring in up to $10 million. Ninety percent of the revenue will be used for services such as police, fire, roads and parks. The other 10 percent will go into a community benefit fund, and a special citizens commission will determine the priorities of that money.

If the 10 percent tax ends up being too high, the council can lower it. However, the council cannot raise the tax above 10 percent without another ballot measure.

Pastor Elias "Eli" Loera from Christian Temple Fresno said the city doesn't need dispensaries if people can grow six plants inside their home, which produces enough cannabis to "chain smoke," he said.

"People are going to know here, what you voted, and I'm going to make sure 100,000 of them know," he said to the council.

Susan Juvet, a Fresno resident and cannabis patient, addressed the council while wearing a green baseball cap with a marijuana leaf on it. She told them medicinal marijuana helped her to stop taking benzodiazepines to manage her pain.

"It's still embarrassing to get up here and talk about this, so I really look forward to the day when I don't have to come down here and do this," she said. Cannabis "changed my life dramatically. It saved my marriage. … Those drugs that the doctor had me on were terrible. They made me angry and agitated. They didn't help my pain. They didn't help my anxiety. They made things worse."

Mayor Lee Brand said although he voted against Proposition 64, he had to set his personal feelings aside on this issue. He reassured opponents that the city was not trying to make money off marijuana. He said that's where other cities that have allowed marijuana made mistakes. His goal is to "cripple" the black market by controlling accessibility and affordability. And, the councilmembers did their due diligence in researching best and worst practices.

"One of the biggest problems in this city is drugs and gangs," he said. "…You could characterize Fresno as 'Drugs, Incorporated.' We need to tackle the citywide issue that's devastating our community."

Even Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer weighed in on the discussion, saying he supports having a limited number of medical marijuana dispensaries in the city. Dyer said there's 70 illegal dispensaries operating in the city, but the police department doesn't have the resources or community support to shut them down.

"I do believe that we can eliminate illegal dispensaries in our community," he said. "I believe that with all my heart."

The council has yet to approve a regulatory ordinance outlining what kind and how many marijuana operations will be allowed. Later in Thursday's meeting, City Attorney Doug Sloan gave a presentation on what city officials are considering including in the ordinance.

The city may move to allow one medical marijuana dispensary in each council district. After one year, the council will evaluate the progress and will have the option to allow an additional dispensary in each district.

The ordinance would allow for four business hubs which could be located within one mile of Highway 180 or Highway 99 or near the city's wastewater treatment plant. The hubs could not be near a residential zone, school, daycare center or youth center, such as a park.

All cultivation, distribution and manufacturing done in the city must be within a hub.

Lab testing would be allowed within a hub or a commercial, downtown or employment district.

Business license applications would go through the city manager's office and need to be renewed each year.

District 1 Councilman Oliver Baines said he hopes to organize educational community meetings, and he hopes the draft ordinance will be released within one or two months.

Brianna Calix: 559-441-6166, @BriannaCalix
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