Cities face uncertainty if marijuana is legalized

October 14, 2010

Marcel Honore, Desert Sun

Polls show there's a strong chance voters next month might pass Proposition 19, which would legalize marijuana for recreational use in California.

If that happens, Coachella Valley cities — which already have spent more than four years grappling with what to do about medical pot dispensaries — may have to revisit their laws on marijuana all over again, officials say.

It's not yet clear what effects the measure would have on the valley. If passed on Nov. 2, Proposition 19 would make California the first in the U.S. to legalize pot beyond medical use, and its potential benefits and pitfalls have been debated for months across the nation.

Palm Springs — the only valley city so far to license the medical marijuana dispensaries already allowed under state law — could offer a glimpse of what to expect.

The west valley city allows three dispensaries to operate under a 2009 ordinance, but as many as seven have opened there illegally in recent years. That includes two downtown dispensaries that the city compelled to close.

Joy Meredith, president of the Main Street Palm Springs downtown merchant association, said she's never heard of businesses or customers complaining about the dispensaries, whether they're licensed by the city or not.

“There hasn't been any negative impact at all,” she said, except for “political jabs” criticizing the dispensaries in campaign commercials for Rep. Mary Bono Mack against her opponent, Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet.

However, Proposition 19, according to an official state voter guide, would go far beyond what's offered via the medical dispensaries in Palm Springs.

The ballot measure would allow adults over 21 to use and grow limited amounts of pot for recreational use at home and other “non-public” areas.

It further would allow cities to tax and regulate commercial sales of pot within their borders.

“It's such uncharted territory,” Meredith said. “There's so much to it.”

Seven valley cities have banned medical pot dispensaries outright since 2007. Rancho Mirage is considering an ordinance that would allow one dispensary within city limits.

City officials agreed they would have to revisit existing city laws should Proposition 19 pass and decide what, if any, changes should be made to regulate pot sales.

“No question, we have to take a fresh look if that passes,” said David Erwin, city attorney for Palm Desert, which in 2007 became the first valley city to ban dispensaries.

Proposition 19 authorizes cities to regulate marijuana sales but doesn't force them to do so, La Quinta City Attorney Kathy Jenson added.

Ultimately the valley's city councils would decide what changes, if any, to make to local laws, Erwin said.

Much of the debate over the ballot measure's effects thus far has boiled down to a battle of studies that support each side.

Covina Police Chief Kim Raney, a member of the California Police Chiefs Association executive board, which opposes 19, called it “a recipe for disaster” that would lead to more people driving under the influence, in an April interview with The Desert Sun.

Lanny Swerdlow, president of Palm Springs-based pro-legalization Marijuana Anti-Prohibition Project, said the measure would lead to a drop in alcohol consumption and prescription drug abuse.

Riverside County Sheriff Stan Sniff and Palm Springs Police Chief David Dominguez did not respond to requests for comment on potential law enforcement impacts if the measure passes.

Proponents of the measure also stress the opportunity for cash-strapped cities to tap new sources of tax revenue as they work to recover from recession. All of the valley's cities have been affected by budget woes in recent years.

How much new tax revenue is collected from commercial pot sales depends on how many cities opt to allow them, and how they license the sales, according to a state legislative analyst report.

Proposition 19 opponents say they're concerned the measure would give minors better access to marijuana, and cite studies that show greater potential for long-term mental health problems in teenagers who smoke pot.

Advocates counter with studies in which teens say it's already easier for them to buy marijuana and cigarettes than it is to buy beer.

The ballot measure would allow cities to prevent marijuana sales, too, said Kris Hermes, spokesman for Oakland-based Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group.

It's not clear how many cities would ban pot sales, but the prospect has some medical marijuana advocates concerned that Proposition 19 ultimately could make it harder for patients to access pot, Hermes said.

The measure could also drive down prices for the drug, he added.

Stacy Hochanadel, owner of Cannahelp in Palm Springs, said he wasn't worried about potential negative impacts on his dispensary.

Instead, Hochanadel said he sees possibilities to expand.

“The Coachella Valley is a major source for growing fruit and vegetables for the United States. Why wouldn't they use it for growing cannabis?” he said.

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