Palo Alto council could pass pot decision to voters

September 28, 2011

Jason Green, San Jose Mercury News

The Palo Alto City Council faces a decision on Monday: Whether to essentially reverse a long-standing ban on pot clubs, or put the matter in the hands of voters. The issue is being forced by an initiative petition that would allow as many as three medical marijuana dispensaries to operate in the city. Organizers collected 4,859 signatures, roughly 500 than needed to qualify a measure for the Nov. 6, 2012, general election, according to a report released Wednesday by the City Clerk's Office.

In 1996, the city council passed an uncodified ordinance prohibiting pot clubs in Palo Alto. The move followed the passage of Proposition 215, which legalized the cultivation of cannabis for limited medical-treatment purposes. The state law has since been tweaked to give cities authority over the location, operation or establishment of medical marijuana dispensaries.

According to the report, the council has two options: Adopt the proposed measure or place it before voters. Under the latter course of action, the council could introduce a competing initiative, whether in the shape of an outright ban or one that modifies the proposed measure.

Palo Alto residents Thomas and Cassandra Moore agreed to back the petition on behalf of Americans for Safe Access, a group working to promote legal access to cannabis for therapeutic use and research.

"This is so harmless. In fact, it reduces harm," said Thomas Moore, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute who specializes in international trade, deregulation and privatization. "I have difficulty believing, if put up to a vote, it would lose."

Moore said he and his wife, a policy analyst for the Cato Institute, have long supported the outright legalization of marijuana, though neither one has ever used the drug nor any illicit substance, for that matter.

"Marijuana is much less harmful than either alcohol or tobacco, and both of those are legal," he said. "Why wouldn't we want something that makes people mellow to be legal?"

The Moores said they plan to appear before the council on Monday to make the case for skipping an election. The cost of holding one could be upward of $92,000, according to the report.

"The sensible thing to do is adopt it outright and save the taxpayers a lot of money," said Thomas.

However, unless stripped from the proposed measure, a provision to tax sales of medical marijuana would require an election, according to the report. The 4 cent per dollar tax on gross receipts would flow into the city's general fund. The petition initiative noted that San Jose collected $290,000 in one month through a similar tax.

"Think how many police, firefighters, teachers and libraries that would support," the petition stated.

Under the proposed measure, dispensaries could not open within 150 feet of any residential zone, 600 feet of any public or private school, or 500 feet of any public library, park, licensed day care center or substance-abuse rehabilitation center. City officials are investigating where pot clubs could potentially set up shop, according to the report.

The collectives would also be restricted to operating between the hours of 9 a.m. and 10 p.m.

The council meeting is scheduled to begin 5 p.m. Monday at City Hall, 250 Hamilton Ave.

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