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City Council takes a mulligan on marijuana ordinance

on July 28, 2010

A week after throwing its support behind a medical marijuana ordinance that many saw as one of the most pot-friendly in the area, Richmond’s City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to scratch a number of the ordinance’s most controversial clauses. In a separate move, the council agreed to allow city voters to decide on a new pot tax.

Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, along with Councilmembers Nat Bates, Jeff Ritterman and Jim Rogers, all reversed course on a number of key aspects of the pot ordinance Tuesday that they had insisted on during their July 20 meeting, agreeing instead to pass a modified ordinance that will cap the number of marijuana dispensaries in town to three, and place new restrictions on how and where such clubs can operate.

“It’s harder to shrink back than to expand [the ordinance],” McLaughlin said Tuesday in defending her about-face, explaining that last week’s first reading of the ordinance was too lax.

In a separate move later in the evening, the council voted to place a November ballot measure before city voters asking whether to charge dispensaries a 5 percent tax on all marijuana sales.

Tuesday’s move to amend the city’s medical marijuana ordinance represents a substantial beefing up of the ordinance’s original rules, which some anticipated would turn Richmond into a regional hub for pot sales.

The version of the medical marijuana ordinance that was originally passed 4-3 by the council July 20 did not place a cap on the number of dispensaries allowed within city limits. It also placed the responsibility for granting medical marijuana business licenses to the city manager’s office, and limited medical pot shops to parts of town designated as commercial zones.

All of those stipulations were amended Tuesday: The Richmond Police Department will now oversee permitting and code enforcement for the three permitted marijuana dispensaries, and marijuana clubs will now only be allowed in C-3 commercial zones like the Hilltop Mall – effectively eliminating a number of current dispensaries from consideration for one of the new licenses.

Additionally, the council made amendments Tuesday that restrict patients to purchasing a maximum of one ounce of marijuana from a dispensary per visit, and stipulated that applicants for a marijuana license be scored on a point system, which has yet to be devised.

“This is a disaster,” said John Clay, who runs Pacific Alternative Health Center, a Point Richmond-based dispensary. “The level of ignorance on the council is staggering.”

Every ordinance the council passes must go through two readings before being enacted into law. While most ordinances are approved on second reading with ease, it appears that an avalanche of public feedback swayed the council into revising the ordinance this time. Because of the breadth of Tuesday’s revisions, the newly approved ordinance will have to go through a second reading, scheduled for the third week of September. The council takes its yearly recess during August.

On his popular e-forum, Councilman Tom Butt earlier this week sent followers a letter to the city council from Police Chief Chris Magnus that asked that the council to reconsider it’s initial plans for the ordinance – particularly handing oversight of the process to the city manager’s office instead of the police. On Tuesday, McLaughlin cited Magnus’ letter as one of the reasons for changing her mind.

In addition to modifying the marijuana ordinance, the council on Tuesday voted unanimously to place a 5 percent tax on all pot sales before city voters this November. Councilman Butt, who wrote the measure, initially called for a 10 percent tax, but backed off that plan. Both Berkeley and Oakland are planning to let voters decide on similar pot taxes: Berkeley’s would tax medical marijuana sales at 2.5 percent, while Oakland’s would charge 5 percent of all marijuana receipts. Both of those cities are proposing a 10 percent tax on marijuana sold for recreational use, effective only if state voters approve Proposition 19 this November and legalize non-medical marijuana use.

Richmond’s ballot measure will contain no such distinction between medical and recreational marijuana use – rather, it taxes all pot sales equally. Marijuana dispensaries currently pay a 9.75 percent state sales tax on marijuana they sell, although most of that money goes to the state, rather than to the city.

Tuesday’s agenda also called for the council to direct city staffers to draft an ordinance that would regulate and tax large-scale marijuana farms in Richmond, similar to a move Oakland gave final approval to Tuesday. The discussion was cut short, however, when Councilwoman Ludmyrna Lopez moved to have city staff simply investigate the matter and report back for a study session in January. That motion passed 5-2, with Councilmembers Bates and Maria Viramontes opposing.

Clay, the Point Richmond dispensary operator, was clearly upset by the council’s decisions Tuesday. “We got our butts kicked,” he said as he left the chambers.

One of the most repeated pleas from the dozens of medical marijuana users and dispensers on hand Tuesday was for the council to halt the legal orders dispensaries are facing to close up shop. All eight of Richmond’s current dispensaries have been ordered to shut down for operating without a business license (which is currently impossible for a dispensary to obtain). Several representatives for the collectives suggested instead that the city agree to allow the dispensaries to stay open until the new ordinance takes effect.

The council ultimately agreed to meet next week, during the August recess, to discuss the matter in a closed-session meeting. The last time it considered the matter, the council voted 4-3 in closed session to continue its litigation against the dispensaries – although if Tuesday was any indication, nothing relating to marijuana is set in stone just yet.


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