Pubdate: Thu, 03 Feb 2011
Source: Times-Herald, The (Vallejo, CA)
Copyright: 2011 The Times-Herald
Author: Tony Burchyns


BENICIA -- After a lengthy public hearing lasting until nearly 
midnight, the City Council unanimously decided Tuesday to ban medical 
marijuana dispensaries in Benicia.

The law will take effect after the city's 18-month moratorium on such 
establishments expires next month. A second vote to formally adopt 
the ban will be held later this month.

But the council also voted 4-1 to review the controversial issue at a 
future meeting -- probably after the November municipal election -- 
to decide if a public process should be undertaken to see if most 
residents might support allowing dispensaries.

Without any clear public mandate one way or the other, no council 
members seemed willing to take a stand that might upset voters.

Three council seats will be up for grabs in November.

At the same time, though, all struggled with how to respond to last 
week's unexpected, unanimous planning commission rejection of city 
staff's recommended ban. Further complicating the highly politicized 
matter was a parade of pot dispensary advocates stepping to the 
podium Tuesday night.

They included Ricki Ingersoll, 66, of Benicia. Ingersoll said she 
travels to an Oakland dispensary called Harborside Health Center to 
acquire medical cannabis to treat her Post-polio syndrome pain 
symptoms. The disease affects polio survivors years after recovery.

"It is difficult and burdensome to me and many people to drive to 
Harborside," Ingersoll said, adding that Vallejo's unregulated clubs 
pose a security risk for seniors.

"We need to draft an ordinance for Benicia (to allow a regulated 
dispensary)," she said. "It's not a complicated problem. It's not 
hard to figure out."

At the end of the night, the council majority acknowledged that there 
could be support for allowing tightly regulated medical marijuana 
dispensaries. Other cities, while perceived as more progressive than 
Benicia, already have gone that route.

However, the council backed off making the issue a priority anytime 
soon, even after City Manager Brad Kilger said a strategy for 
gathering more public feedback could be developed within months.

Council members Mark Hughes and Tom Campbell indicated they would not 
support anything short of a total ban. But their colleagues expressed 
an interest in conducting public meetings and possibly creating a 
task force to study the issue.

Hughes and Campbell both expressed concerns about the perceived ease 
of acquiring medical marijuana cards for illegitimate purposes. 
Hughes also said that opening the door to pot clubs might send a 
message to youth that the city has a relaxed attitude about 
recreational use of the drug.

"We already have a drug and alcohol problem in this community," 
Hughes said, citing a recent survey that found the number of Benicia 
seventh-graders who say they've smoked marijuana has more than 
doubled from 5 percent in 2008 to 11 percent in 2010.

Campbell said he feared that dispensaries could negatively impact 
neighboring businesses in commercial or industrial centers. However, 
he said after the meeting he'd be OK with a public process to study 
the issue, but added "It would be a long haul to get me to go along 
with" allowing pot to be sold.

While initially not high on the city's list of priorities, the pot 
club question has generated a surprising amount of interest in recent 
days after the planning commission's vote against a ban. The 
commission instead recommended taking steps to create an ordinance to 
allow dispensaries.

Rarely has the council overruled a unanimous commission 
recommendation. But in this case, council members agreed with city 
officials that the ban should be passed before the city's 18-month 
moratorium on medical marijuana clubs expires on March 20.

City officials said there wouldn't be enough time for a thorough 
public process before the temporary ban expired. Leaving the issue 
unresolved could invite litigation in the absence of any clear policy 
or regulations, City Attorney Heather Mc Laughlin advised the council.

However, given the planning commission's vote, council members Mike 
Ioakimedes, Elizabeth Patterson and Alan Schwartzman seemed inclined, 
to varying degrees, to study the issue further in community forums. 
But they differed over how and when the process should be initiated.

Mayor Patterson supported a staff recommendation to consider 
initiating a possible public outreach strategy within the next few months.

Ioakimedes suggested that the council place an expiration date on the 
ban in order to move the process along. But he later dropped the idea.

Schwartzman seemed less interested in making the issue a priority, 
considering the city's pressing budget issues and limited staff resources.

All but Patterson agreed. Afterward, Patterson said she didn't see a 
need to delay getting more public feedback on the issue, since that 
seemed to be the council majority's desire after Tuesday's public hearing.

Schwartzman, who many observers think may challenge Patterson in 
November's mayoral election, suggested that the city should hold a 
referendum on the issue. But he added that it shouldn't happen until 
after the November election.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom