City bans cannabis activities, still open to a green future

Since the city of Susanville can no longer extend its interim urgency ordinance to ban cannabis activities within the city limits, city staff drafted an ordinance to ban all activities to the extent the state of California has allowed local municipalities to do so.

The city council first adopted the interim urgency ordinance at its Dec. 6, 2017 meeting. According to the city, this allowed the city council time to adopt regulations pertaining to cannabis activities within the city, prior to the changes in state law in Jan. 2018.

The interim urgency ordinance was set to expire in January 2018 and was extended for a period of 10 months and 15 days by resolution.

At the Nov. 7, 2018 city council meeting, the council approved yet another extension of the interim urgency ordinance, pushing back the date to Nov. 6, 2019.

Almost two years later, the ordinance proposed at the Oct. 16 meeting was not far from the interim urgency ordinance in how it continues to ban all cannabis activities to the extent allowed by the state.

The first reading of the city’s ordinance regulating medical and adult use cannabis activities was followed by a public comment period where a handful of residents mostly spoke in favor of the council adopting regulations in support of more cannabis activities within the city limits.

City attorney Jessica Ryan shared the ordinance with the council and opened the topic for discussion before the public comment period.

Ryan told the council that before they took up the item, the city’s planning commission held discussions on the matter and recommended the council pass the proposed ordinance.

Ryan said the commission wanted clarification on the differences between medical and adult use cannabis.

The other issue brought forth by the commission was that the city certainly could use the money from cannabis activities opening within the city limits.

Afterward Ryan conveyed the council could pass the ordinance as-is and then change the ordinance by passing another ordinance to allow the activities at a later time.

Ryan explained that staff drafted the current ordinance based upon the prior decisions of the current members of the council, specifically the council’s continual extension of its interim urgency ban.

Ryan told the council, “That is exactly why we passed those urgency ordinances, because we didn’t want to be stuck with whatever the state told us to do.”

Police chief Kevin Jones gave his position on the matter saying, “I get it. California changed its law. We embrace it because it’s law … but there’s no arguing that marijuana is a gateway drug. Legal or not in the state of California.”

However, according to the studies done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the majority of people who use marijuana in fact do not go on to use other “harder” substances, and more research is needed to understand if marijuana is a “gateway drug.”

An alternative to the gateway-drug hypothesis is that people who are more vulnerable to drug-taking are simply more likely to start with readily available substances such as marijuana, tobacco or alcohol; and their subsequent social interactions with others who use drugs increases their chances of trying other drugs.


Public hearing

One resident, Don Kirkpatrick spoke first during the public hearing portion. He told the council, “If you take in that sales tax, which I’m assuming it would be a pretty sizable amount — because most people that I talk to, they’re going out of the area and spending their money — it would stay here locally.”

Kirkpatrick then referred to the prior discussions at the Oct. 16 meeting centered on the proposed 1-percent tax measure to be designated specifically toward public safety. Kirkpatrick said, “So you have a problem with a deficit in this other area. If that sales tax is not specified what it has to be used for, why couldn’t it help bail you out of the problem you’re in?”

Mayor pro tem Joseph Franco mentioned that the tax collected from possible cannabis activities would go into the same pot.

Kirkpatrick mentioned Shasta County’s increase in police and fire department funding due to taxes collected from its allowed cannabis activities.

A local business owner in the city, Russell Bates spoke to the council as well. Bates said that although he isn’t himself a consumer of cannabis, he agreed with Kirkpatrick.

Bates referred to the council’s earlier talks around implementing a 1 percent public safety tax, “You spent … an hour and a half talking about how this city cannot afford public safety right now.” Bates continued to explain that “other business models such as Reno … are imposing a 15 percent sales tax on marijuana alone, and that goes for both recreational and medicinal use. That’s a huge number.”

Bates himself was certain the taxes collected for one month from one dispensary would be more than sufficient to fund a position such as dogcatcher for a whole year.

He closed by asserting that the taxes from allowed cannabis activities would meet the city’s public safety goals years faster than the six to seven years from the proposed 1 percent sales tax increase.

“We’re losing millions of dollars from our little community right here in incorporated Susanville,” said Bates. “It could provide a lot of solutions and bring new industry to the town and help the existing industry that’s here. We’re talking about putting more regulations in a city ordinance and more code, when we can’t afford to enforce the ones we have in place now.”

Bates reminded the council that the county was close to bringing a dispensary just outside of the city limits, and “if we don’t jump on board, the ship is going to sail right past us.”

David Teeter, local resident and member of the Lassen County Board of Supervisors, also spoke at the public hearing.

“The county is going forward. We are going to have a dispensary,” said Teeter. “It would be more appropriate in the city of Susanville.”

Councilmember Brain Wilson instantly expressed that the dispensary technically would be built in the city’s sphere of influence.

Teeter then explained, “What Russell just talked about was an economic development philosophy: You keep your tax rate low, work on your infrastructure and you invite new businesses that want to come to your area … and what you’re doing tonight is telling them ‘don’t come here’ and they’re already here.”

Teeter mentioned that while he didn’t expect the dispensary to be a panacea to all of the economic problems in the area, the county is attempting a new philosophy, “Which is to say: if your business can come here — if it’s allowed by law — then we want you here.”

Teeter told the council that there were two roads the council could go down from this point. One road was the proposed 1 percent tax increase. Teeter said, “Where I come from, conservative folks don’t add a new tax. What they look for are new businesses, and they put as few regulations as they can possibly get away with on businesses, because that’s what government is supposed to do, is regulate the market and get out of the way.”

Local resident Gary Felt also spoke at the council’s public hearing where he declared that Bates had summed up his thought quite well.

Felt said, “There are a lot of people who just don’t like marijuana. Why? They just don’t like marijuana. They can’t really tell you a reason why, they just don’t like it. So they lean towards any regulations that will limit it or restrict it any way you want.”

Felt also expressed his surprise that cannabis hadn’t been dropped from a Schedule 1 to a Schedule 2 drug.

Felt said, “I expected the Trump administration to have already done that, and I still think it’s going to happen.”

Felt mentioned that both the state of California and Lassen County passed measures allowing cannabis use and a way to tax the substance.

“I think we should almost be embracing it as it becomes legal,” said Felt, “and instead of saying we have an ordinance that limits it to the max, we should have an ordinance that allows it to the max.”

Felt also mentioned relaxed banking regulations coming out of the state legislature to allow cannabis businesses to utilize banks for their business, due to the current complications with the federal government not allowing cannabis businesses to use federally insured banking establishments.

Kirkpatrick again spoke about the difference between medical and adult use cannabis, specifically when it came to the differences in tax rates. “The medical is one tax rate and the adult use cannabis … it’s a higher rate, so the opportunity there to just base structure is just enormous.”

Commissioner Melanie Westbrook from the planning commission was in attendance at the council’s meeting where she told the council her take on the subject was to leave it up to the council to decide.

Westbrook also spoke up at the end of the public hearing.

“I’ve never been a medical marijuana user or a recreational marijuana user …, but for me it is about having another revenue source,” and that “there’s not a massage therapist in town that I know … that doesn’t offer a CBD oil massage.”

Westbrook also pointed out, “Everybody that I know, usually they’re over the age of 65, they’re over getting the lotions, the salves for their arthritis and their back surgeries that they have.”

She noted that those individuals were not seeking to get high or drive around stoned, but to treat their ailments.

“We’re losing so much revenue to either online sales or Reno. Even I went to a dispensary in Reno, and my mom had a back issue and I’ve never seen somebody in so much pain in my life, and I was going to shove anything at her I could get. Because the pain pills — the regulated pain meds from her doctor — didn’t work. So we drove to Reno, got everything I could, slapped it all on her; she finally could relax until she could get to her back surgery appointment.”

Westbrook noted that she spent around $300 at the dispensary, which was money from which the city could have collected sales tax.

Ryan told the council after they unanimously decided to pass the ordinance that if any of the councilmembers desired to bring back a regulation structure, they were not limited to strictly the ban, and could instruct the staff to put an ordinance on the ballot to let the voters decide if they want cannabis activities within the city limits.

Franco thanked Ryan for the comment.

“So what I would like to see happen, since we’re hearing the community say ‘yes, please do it,’ is to put an ordinance on the ballot,” said Ryan. She also hinted that if local resident voters wanted to put together a measure for the ballot, they are open to that possibility as well.

Councilmember Brian Wilson then said, “I think if it’s that big of a issue and somebody wants to run (for city council) on that platform, they should. And then they’ll find out if it’s popular with the voters or not.”