Medical marijuana dispensaries banned by city of Benicia

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. via : Times-Herald

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