Berkeley Council Action Moves Ballot Measures Forward

April 29, 2004

Matthew Artz, Berkeley Daily Planet

On a night when Berkeley City Councilmembers deliberated a host of potential November ballot measures to shore up a $10 million budget deficit, council action made it likely that two other electoral choices will come before city voters this November.

Despite some opposition voiced during debate, the council voted unanimously to have staff prepare language and a legal analysis of a proposed ballot measure to publicly finance elections in Berkeley.

And to the tune of repeated hoots and hollers from medical cannabis demonstrators stationed outside the doors of Old City Hall, the council rejected a proposal to increase the number of marijuana plants licensed patients can grow. Medical cannabis advocates had threatened to take their cause to the voters if council did not pass the measure.

Medical Marijuana

By a vote of 5-1-3 (Wozniak, Olds, Hawley, Shirek, Breland, yes, Bates, Spring, no, Maio, Worthington, abstain), the council voted to table a bill that would have upped Berkeley’s limit from 10 marijuana plants to 72—the number of plants permitted in Oakland.

Medical cannabis advocates said they planned to push forward with a November ballot initiative that would erase any limit on plant cultivation and place the city in charge of marijuana distribution in the event of a federal crackdown.

“We’ll be happy to have voters educate the City Council on this,” said James Blair of the Cannabis Buyer’s Network (CBCB) after the council vote. If passed by a majority of voters, the proposed initiative would give Berkeley the most lenient medical cannabis law in the state.

Blair and other supporters of less restrictive cultivation rules said the 10-plant limit Berkeley codified in 2001 was too low for patients to grow an adequate supply for their medicinal needs and forced many to break the rule. Since Berkeley is densely populated and outdoor plants are only permissible in secluded areas, they argued most cultivation is done indoors, where plants grow smaller and the yield is less.

In addition to supplying their own needs, patients also stock Berkeley’s three retail cannabis clubs, which sell the marijuana at a 40-45 percent markup, Don Duncan, director of the Berkeley Patients Group told the council. He said patients were able to supply the club because many broke the 10-plant rule and others lived in cities that allowed more plants. Duncan added that the price markup paid for the expenses of running the cannabis clubs and was not taken as profit.

Police Chief Roy Meisner warned the council that raising the limit to 72 plants would increase both the opportunity for patients to profit from their harvest and the likelihood of violent crime. He said 72 plants could produce 18 pounds of marijuana, which would have a street value of $90,000.

“That’s a lot of money and a lot of temptation,” Meisner said. He added that Berkeley police detectives linked two murders last year to marijuana, and recently police broke up an armed robbery, finding the resident beaten and bound and three armed assailants carrying duffle bags packed with marijuana and $69,200 in cash.

The fear of increased crime weighed heavily for the five councilmembers who opposed an increase in plant cultivation, but what apparently sunk the proposal was a separate dispute over Blair’s Cannabis Buyers Network plan to move to a building in a crime-ridden section of Sacramento Street in Council District Two, represented by Councilmember Margaret Breland.

In 2001 Breland was one of four councilmembers to support a proposal allowing patients to grow 144 plants, but Tuesday she changed her tune.

“Why do we have to keep sticking [cannabis clubs] down in District Two?” she asked. “I wish people who really want it would take it up to their district.”

Amid staunch neighborhood opposition, Blair’s group will soon go before the Zoning Adjustment Board for a use permit to move its operations to Sacramento Street from its current home at Longhaul, an anarchist resources center and bookshop, at Shattuck Avenue and Woolsey Street. The owner of that building is displacing tenants for a planned construction project to build top floor apartment units.

Breland also echoed the concerns of Councilmember Maudelle Shirek that more marijuana in Berkeley would result in more young African Americans getting arrested on drug charges. “We’re the ones always getting in trouble because we’re used to being out on the street,” she said. “This is one of the reasons I’m against drugs because all they have to do is find a little bit, no matter how much it is, and we are going to jail.”

Councilmember Worthington argued that by raising cultivation limits fewer poor people of any race would be at risk of prosecution, and Councilmember Spring said the council’s focus should be on helping people to “ease their pain.” But Breland—considered by medical cannabis advocates as the swing vote on the issue—remained steadfast.

“You can survive without marijuana,” said Breland who has battled breast cancer recently. “I have pain medication, I have prayer, I have faith, and I am strong. So don’t give me that about you need the marijuana to survive.”

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