Marijuana question headed to Palo Alto voters in 2012

Jason Green, San Jose Mercury News

Palo Alto voters will face several weighty questions in November 2012. Does President Barack Obama deserve another term? How about the four city council members who will be up for re-election?

Add to that list whether medical marijuana dispensaries should be allowed to set up shop in Palo Alto.

With little discussion, the council decided 7-0 early Tuesday morning to put the issue in front of voters, after a citizens' initiative to open three cannabis clubs received enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. Council members Yiaway Yeh and Gail Price were absent.

"I think our obligation is to put it on the ballot and let the public decide," Council Member Larry Klein said.

The council did not discuss its other options, which included drafting its own measure to oppose or modify the proposed one.

Brought forward by Palo Alto residents Thomas and Cassandra Moore, the citizens' initiative calls for an ordinance that would essentially reverse a ban on dispensaries the city enacted in 1997 following the passage of Proposition 215.

The three cannabis clubs would be prohibited from opening within 150 feet of any residential zone, 600 feet of any public or private school, and 500 feet of any public library, park, licensed day care center or substance-abuse rehabilitation center. They could only operate between the hours of 9 a.m. and 10 p.m. The ordinance would also establish a 4 percent tax on gross receipts of all medical marijuana dispensaries.

A wide range of speakers, from former state Assemblyman John Vasconcellos to the founder of the first pot club in San Jose, urged the council to reconsider the city's stance on dispensaries.

"When you're in chronic pain and you can't function and you can't work and you can't socialize, and you find something that brings back your whole life, I can't believe you guys would ban it," a tearful Tracey Chen told the council.

The Palo Alto resident said she found relief from neurological and autoimmune problems through medical marijuana.

"You function way better on it if you're a person who needs it," Chen said. "I'm not saying everybody needs it but there are people who really need it. Our lives are better on it and I really hope you can let us have it in the city so we don't have to go rely on other cities."

Vasconcellos, who championed legislation establishing the state's medical marijuana program, told the council its constituents supported the Compassionate Use Act of 1996 by a margin of three-to-one.

"I plead with you," Vasconcellos said, "listen to the people, the law, the science and your hearts."

Dave Hodges said Palo Alto is in a unique position to avoid the troubles that have befallen San Jose, which has seen 130 dispensaries spring into existence since he opened San Jose Cannabis Buyers Collective in 2009.

"The situation is completely out of control," Hodges said. "You have a great opportunity to move past where we are and create sensible regulations."

If voters pass the proposed ordinance, Palo Alto would join a handful of Peninsula cities, such as San Carlos and San Mateo, that allow dispensaries.

In California, 48 cities and 12 counties have ordinances regulating medical marijuana dispensaries, 81 cities and 10 counties have moratoriums, and 168 cities and 17 counties have bans, according to a February study conducted by Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group.