Berkeley loses money as cannabis commission idles
May 24, 2011
Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside
Six months after voters approved new laws to expand Berkeley's medical marijuana trade - in the hopes of bringing more money to city coffers – a new commission to oversee the process has not been seated.
While six city council members have appointed members to a new medical marijuana commission — enough for a quorum – the group won’t meet until all nine members are in place, according to Wendy Cosin, deputy city planner, who sent out an email last week stating there would not be a meeting in May. That way all the members can have a voice in selecting a chair, she said.
The delay means that rules have not been established for the opening of a fourth cannabis dispensary, approved in November when voters passed Measure T. And the delay puzzles some observers since a new dispensary has the potential of bringing in thousands of dollars a year – money which could help offset Berkeley’s projected $12.2 million deficit for fiscal year 2012. Medical marijuana is taxed at a rate of $18 for every $1,000 sold. That will go up to $25 per $1,000 in gross receipts in 2012
“It is an important commission,” said Julie Sinai, chief of staff for Mayor Tom Bates, who hasn’t yet selected his appointee. “We do want it seated. We want it to meet. (The Mayor) is trying to contemplate who he wants to appoint.”
Councilman Kriss Worthington, who along with councilwoman Linda Maio, has not yet selected a commission member, said he does not see why all the members have to be selected before the commission is seated. He said he is looking for an appointee who will complement the skills of the other commission members.
“I believe the commission can and should meet before all nine people are appointed, “ Worthington wrote in an email. “It is important to get the commission to start meeting for multiple policy reasons, as well as budget reasons.”
The old medical marijuana commission was not a formal city commission with members appointed by the City Council, but a committee of people from the medical cannabis industry. Measure T requires that the commission include a member of a dispensary, a member of a collective, and a cultivator who grows for multiple sources.
The members who have been appointed so far include Toya Groves, Karl Pfrommer, Stewart Jones, Kunal Dalal, Charles A. Pappas, and Loy Sheflott.
The old medical marijuana committee did come up with guidelines on how to license a fourth dispensary and presented them to the city council, said Kris Hermes, a former member and a spokesman for Americans for Safe Access. But those plans were only advisory and the new commission has no obligation to adopt them, he said.
If Berkeley is having a difficult time now appointing a new commission, it is nothing like the challenges it will face when people vie for a license for a fourth dispensary, said Hermes.
“Setting up a process for selecting the next dispensary may not be a piece of cake,” said Hermes. “There may be a dozen or hundreds of applicants. It may be a headache.”
One big question is whether the new commission will set standards for the six large-scale cultivation facilities approved with the passage of Measure T.
The city of Oakland backed down from its plans to establish industrial grow sites after Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, citing a warning from the federal government, sent the city a letter cautioning that the large growing facilities were not legal. That seems to have made other cities, including Berkeley, wary about setting up medical marijuana warehouses.
“The issue around cultivation isn’t moving forward rapidly until we see what the DA is doing,” said Sinai.
Hermes said city officials shouldn’t be cowed by this legal opinion because they are already permitting collectives and dispensaries – which are illegal under federal law.
“It is absurd to insinuate we have to be cautious with cultivation when we are going full bore ahead with distribution, which is illegal under federal law,” said Hermes. “These threats have had a negative effect in many states and it is unfortunate that public officials aren’t standing up to what amounts to a hollow threat. It’s not like the federal government is going to come in and start arresting city officials. That’s not going to happen.”