Smoochin’ the Pooch

December 19, 2007

Nick Welsh, Santa Barbara Independent (CA)

A CONCEITED PROPOSAL: If audacious times call for audacious measures, then I’m sorry to report that no one in City Hall is willing to put their money where my mouth is. After watching the Santa Barbara City Council deliberate two weeks ago over a new ordinance to regulate the how, where, and when of medical marijuana dispensaries, I was struck more by what wasn’t said than by what was. It was a conspicuous case of the dog that didn’t bark, the other shoe that never dropped.

No one ever discussed how City Hall could and should craft the ordinance to ensure that Santa Barbara gets a serious piece of the medical marijuana action. Sure, it’s nice to keep dispensaries away from schools, parks, hospitals, daycare centers, and flamenco dance studios, but can’t we expand the conversation in a remunerative fashion? To steal a line from Duke Ellington, it don’t mean a thing if ain’t got that ka-ching. I’m not being greedy here, folks. Just practical.

Let’s look at the facts. First, there’s the issue of need. If we don’t need the money today, we absolutely will tomorrow. That’s because the bean counters in Sacramento are now projecting a $14.5 billion budget shortfall for the state government. When they get through swinging their machetes in the State House, you can be sure Santa Barbara will have been hacked, gouged, mutilated, and spindled in the process. In addition, Measure D — which for nearly 20 years has provided beaucoup bucks for expensive road repairs and transportation improvements — expires in two years. Given that Measure D needs a two-thirds majority to be renewed, its continued existence should be regarded as very much a long shot. And if it fails at the ballot box next November, that’s a whole lot of dough Santa Barbara won’t be getting anymore. Likewise, legal challenges are looming that could put aspects of the city’s lucrative Utility Users Tax in peril. Should these challenges materialize — and local governments across the state are assuming that they will — City Hall could be out $4 million a year. Even by Santa Barbara standards, that ain’t chicken feed. The traditional way local governments increase revenues is to approve new car dealerships or the construction of new mega malls. But we’ve already done both.

Santa Barbara clearly needs new revenue streams, and medical marijuana dispensaries — for all their legally required nonprofit status — are streaming with revenues. According to an area pot doc I consulted with, there are roughly 3,000 patients who’ve been prescribed medical marijuana living in and around Santa Barbara. Pot sells at about $400 an ounce, so you can do the math. For those without a pocket calculator, NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) pointed out that the Compassion Center in Alameda County — recently shut down by the feds — generated $350,000 a year in sales taxes, and one in Bakersfield cranked out $427,000. NORML estimates California’s statewide pot crop — which includes both medical and recreational applications — could be worth as much as $2 billion a year. I’m guessing that number is conservative. Earlier this year, Sheriff’s deputies discovered no less than $500 million worth of plants on the property of my editor, Marianne Partridge, whose family owns a ranch outside Lompoc. In this case, guerilla growers associated with a Mexican drug cartel squatted on some of the exceptionally hard-to-reach portions of her property and created a massive pot plantation. Why should ganja gangsters make all the money?

Until this summer, Santa Barbara appeared to be one of the fastest growing medicinal marijuana markets in the state. In the past two years, we went from having two dispensaries to 13. And seven more were on the drawing board. And why not? Santa Barbara has long been home to the newly wed and the nearly dead, and those in the latter category have increasingly sought to create comfortable exit strategies by ingesting marijuana in one form or another.

There are some serious problems, however. Even though state voters resoundingly approved medical marijuana dispensaries 11 years ago, the federal government still maintains they’re against the law. Out of this disagreement, we have a cognitive dissonance that comes with considerable legal peril. The feds have shut down many operations throughout the state and put more than a few operators in the slammer. This past summer, the Drug Enforcement Administration sent out nasty letters to the landlords of Santa Barbara’s dispensaries threatening to seize their assets or put them in jail — or both — if they did not cease and desist immediately. The letters packed major pucker power, and at last count, only five dispensaries are left. My suggestion is City Hall fly in the face of the federal whirlwind by requiring the dispensaries to locate on city-owned properties. That way, they can exact an actual percentage of sales as part of the lease agreement, ensuring that the dispensaries are run in a clean and wholesome manner. During a recent conversation, Councilmember Das Williams rejected this proposal as “insane.” He then added, “But I mean that in the sweetest way possible.” While I appreciate the sweetness, I’d prefer a little daring.

This Tuesday, City Hall passed another anti-war resolution, calling on the United States to withdraw from Iraq during the next year. As much as I like the resolution, it was totally symbolic. Or as Councilmember Brian Barnwell described it, “a popcorn fart in a windstorm.” While we’re at it, why not take a more meaningful stand against the war on drugs, which costs the American public about $70 billion a year with nothing to show for it but about 1.5 million people behind bars. Of those, about half were popped for violating pot laws. If the Iraq War has cost the citizens of Santa Barbara $156 million, then the war on drugs has cost infinitely more. And that doesn’t even begin to consider the colossal waste of life and talent these laws have inflicted.

It’s easy for the council to be brave when making symbolic statements. But our bravery would count for more if our asses were on the line. Sure there are risks involved if City Hall rents space to dispensaries. But without risk, there is no payoff. And in this case, the payoffs could be huge. Think about it.



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