Pot in California

Cannabis as medicine: Fresno council opens door to allowing medical pot operations

Marijuana advocates, users and patients show their displeasure at a June Fresno City Council meeting over a proposed ban on recreational marijuana businesses.
Marijuana advocates, users and patients show their displeasure at a June Fresno City Council meeting over a proposed ban on recreational marijuana businesses. Fresno Bee file

Medical marijuana dispensaries and other portions of the medicinal cannabis supply chain could be legal in Fresno as the result of a unanimous vote Thursday by the City Council.

The 7-0 vote begins the process of rewriting the city’s complete ban on commercial marijuana operations that was adopted earlier this year. It will likely be several months, however, before drafts emerge for ordinances and rules that will govern where and how businesses that cultivate, process, manufacture, distribute or sell medical marijuana can operate within the city.

The action also directs that medical marijuana businesses planning to operate in Fresno can begin their application process to the state Bureau of Cannabis Control as the city moves through the task of amending its ordinances. It also calls for the city to issue letters to medical cannabis businesses to apply for temporary state licenses for cultivation, manufacture, testing, sales and other aspects of the supply chain.

What was approved Thursday, however, is not what was being proposed by Council President Clint Olivier and two co-authors, councilmen Oliver Baines and Paul Caprioglio. Their original resolution would have kept in place Fresno’s prohibition against shops or dispensaries selling marijuana for recreational use, but open up other types of commercial operations for either recreational or medical cannabis.

Councilmen Steve Brandau and Garry Bredefeld thought that was going too far. “The language of this resolution opens the door to recreational marijuana,” Brandau said. “That may not worry you, but it worries me.”

No loophole

Instead, Brandau offered an alternative motion that left no loophole for recreational marijuana; Bredefeld quickly seconded the motion.

Under Proposition 64, a statewide measure approved by voters in November 2016, marijuana possession and cultivation of up to six plants for personal use was legalized. In January, the state can begin issuing licenses for marijuana businesses, but it is up to cities and counties to determine how to regulate such businesses – or prohibit them outright – under local land-use rules. In September, the Fresno City Council finalized its own ordinance barring any recreational marijuana-related businesses from setting up shop anywhere in the city, with the exception of testing labs in industrial areas for which marijuana testing represents 20 percent or less of their business.

Fresno has had a de facto prohibition on medical marijuana dispensaries on the books for more than a decade. The ordinance technically allows medical marijuana dispensaries in areas that are zoned for medical offices – but only if they comply with both state and federal laws. And while medical marijuana has been legal in California since voters passed the Compassionate Use Act in 1996, marijuana for any purpose remains illegal under federal law.

Brandau and Bredefeld both suggested that Olivier, Baines and Caprioglio were effectively trying to slide their original resolution past the rest of the council at the final meeting of the year as a last-minute action.

“It’s not just about medicinal; it’s a cover for what’s being done here,” Bredefeld said of the proposal. “If this was just about medical dispensaries, I might support this today. But this is more.  I think the city of Fresno wants to get into the business of marijuana.”

Impassioned testimony

The rough-and-tumble discussion followed about an hour of impassioned public testimony, both from patients who favor having legal access to dispensaries to buy marijuana as medicine and people who oppose legalizing recreational marijuana sales. Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer and Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp told the council that they sympathize with people with documented and legitimate medical need for marijuana for their ailments, but urged the council to tread carefully on any measure that would legalize recreational marijuana.

Brandau, too, said his position has changed on medical marijuana. “I have been moved over the course of my time here listening to those who have legitimate medical needs” such as post-traumatic stress disorder, cancer, and other illnesses or diseases, he said. “I would love to be able to truly provide people with medicines without loopholes.”

When Brandau made his motion to initiate the ordinance-amendment process – but to restrict the business licensing and zoning only to marijuana for medical uses – it took Olivier by surprise. Olivier abruptly called for a break in the meeting to confer with Baines and Caprioglio behind closed doors. When the trio came back into the council chamber about 15 minutes later, Olivier announced that he and the other two would not support Brandau’s motion.

Bredefeld, in the meantime, castigated Olivier for the closed-door maneuver. “Our business is supposed to happen out here” in public, Bredefeld said. “I don’t know what happened back there, but it should have happened out here.  You didn’t like the way it was going, and you stopped the meeting. It was completely inappropriate.”

A jar on a window sill holds marijuana buds grown for medicinal uses by a Fresno husband and wife in this 2014 file photo. The passage of Proposition 64 in November 2016 not only legalized personal use and possession of marijuana under California law, but also legalized cultivation of up to six plants for personal use. Marijuana, however, remains illegal under federal law. JOHN WALKER Fresno Bee file

Ultimately, Olivier, Baines and Caprioglio did vote for Brandau’s motion. “This is the first time that you in the audience have seen me come this far,” Brandau said. “I’m calling on my colleagues to not be hypocritical at this time and vote on this measure for medical marijuana.”

“You made an argument that I would make, and you’re right,” Baines told Brandau. “I will support your motion.”

Olivier said he, too, was moved by Brandau’s challenge. “His very earnest and poignant final remarks flipped me,” Olivier said after the vote. “I think it was more important to move the ball forward and more important to speak in a unified voice. There’s a benefit to have a 7-0 (vote), at least for this important step. It sends a message to the business community and to community members who use cannabis as medicine that this city is committed to moving forward in an intelligent, progressive way.”