The medical cannabis task force meets at First Congregational Church August 5, 2015. Photo by Jason Ruiz.
When the Long Beach City Council appointed a medical cannabis task force to hash out issues raised during a study session held in February, they charged the group with providing recommendations as to how, if at all, the city should reimplement a medical marijuana policy within the city’s bounds.
Over the last four months, however, alleged conflicts of interests, poor preparation and attendance issues within the task force have slowed progress toward reaching a final set of recommendations to present to the council. This is significant, as these recommendations could ultimately influence the direction of the council’s vote.
The composition of the task force and the apparent conflicts of interest represented by those appointed to serve on it were issues raised during the very first meeting by second district appointee Jack Smith.
Smith, a member of the Central Area Planning Commission, said that a simple Google search would reveal the task force was composed of a mixture of attorneys, real estate agents and those already involved in the medical marijuana industry. The apparent conflicts of interest troubled Smith, prompting him to question Assistant City Attorney Michael Mais about both the practicalities and legalities of the task force's makeup.
“We all had to take ethics training in order to be on the task force,” Smith said. “It’s very clear in the ethics training that people with financial interests cannot participate. Hence my question to the city attorney before we even began meeting.”
However, during the task force’s first meeting in April, Mais clarified. He said that while it is the normal rule of thumb for people with vested interests to be barred from serving on city commissions or boards, in this instance the members weren't “decision makers” and were purely making recommendations, thus the conflicts of interests, while noted, were allowed to exist.
“I don’t know how you could compose that task force any differently,” Mais said. “There’s no secret that they are pro-medical marijuana and they are trying to serve patients harmed by the old ordinance. As long as all of that is out front, I think it’s good to have people on both sides. It’s pretty well-balanced because there are people who have all different points of view on it.”
While experience may very well be a valuable asset, the fact that so many members of the council have polarizing views on the industry will most likely present the council with skewed recommendations that represent the needs and wants of business owners and attorneys rather than that of stakeholders in Long Beach.
However, Mais said the task force would not be the only input considered by the council, and that the diversity of the task force provided a fairly good cross section of the community.
Vice Mayor Suja Lowenthal, who appointed two council members, agreed.
"My hope was for the task force to have a balance of experiences, which could include those of law enforcement and criminal law," Lowenthal said. "Sometimes our experiences can create biases within ourselves; however, bearing in mind that City Council created the task force with the intent to draft an ordinance in support of medical marijuana in Long Beach, I would expect every task force member to draw upon those experiences while enabling the group to achieve their purpose of delivering recommendations to City Council."
“I think that at the end of the day, all of the issues will be clearly identified and they’ll see what was recommended by the planning commission and by that task force or citizen input,” Mais said. “So I think it’s kind of a best of all worlds situation in a way, because they have so much input. I don’ t know how they’ll actually look at it but they might look at where both agree and can take and say ‘well everyone seems to agree that, there should be a buffer, so maybe it's a good idea to put a buffer in an ordinance.’”
Still, Smith said that coming to consensus on the task force has been a laborious practice. Just getting the full task force in the same room to discuss the topic has been nearly impossible due to rampant absenteeism; event the task force’s chairperson was absent for both sessions during which the recommendations were voted on and finalized for council presentation.
When they did show up, Smith said members would re-argue points from the previous meetings because they failed to read the agenda or listen to the audio recordings of the meetings they missed. Putting forth divisive recommendations designed to prevent another member’s idea from being approved was also a practice by some members of the task force, one that Smith called unproductive and time-consuming.
“If we’re going to be making final recommendations, it makes no sense to have one that says “paint the wall” and another one that says “don’t paint the wall,” Smith said. “As a tentative recommendation, whether or not the wall is painted is the recommendation and that will be decided when it’s actually voted on.”
More to Smith's point, of the final recommendations the council will consider at its September 1 meeting, several deal with buffer zones, testing regulations and security protocols—all measures aimed at creating an ordinance that allows for businesses to again operate in the city.
However, others, like a failed recommendation to require tax payments to the city only be made by check, or requiring businesses to maintain large surveillance footage files for a year, or another outright suggesting that the city continue its current ban, seek to severely limit or completely eliminate the industry from the city’s bounds.
A recommendation to require the council members to disclose campaign donations from both advocates and law firms also failed.
Even among parties on the same side of the table, coming to a consensus often required lengthy discussions.
Under the current draft ordinance, applicants’ priority level would be determined by a 21-point scale, with applicants with higher scores being more likely to be granted a license to operate. Adam Hijazi, also appointed by Vice Mayor Suja Lowenthal, made several recommendations that would further reward past operators in the city with extra points, on top of the one point already awarded to them in the draft ordinance.
Hijazi, who is a member of the Long Beach Collective Association—a group of former store operators who were shut down when the city’s most recent ban went into place—proposed multiple items that would award two extra points to applicants who won a lottery spot during the last application process, two more points for re-opening in an old location that was closed down and two more to those applicants who have performed community service in the city.
All of these requisites would potentially benefit Hijazi. These attempts to funnel extra points to benefit himself elicited a prompt dissent from the task force’s vice chair, Mark Greenberg.
“This is really to the point of—we ought to just have a recommendation that only people named Adam with dark hair should get extra points,” Greenberg said. “This has really been a bit much, and it’s too heavy-handed toward benefitting someone.”
Seventh District appointee Aaron Herzberg took exception to the recommendations giving preferential treatment prior operators—one of the few directives outlined by city council when the task force was formed.
Herzberg, the founder of CalCann Holdings, a marijuana holding company, and the Nevada Cannabis Industry Association, has a license for a 40,000 square-foot cultivation site in Nevada, and was recently granted licenses to operate two dispensaries in Santa Ana. Hijazi’s recommendations, as well as another to limit cultivation to inside of Long Beach, were questioned by others on the task force, but none as fervently as Herzberg.
In January, Herzberg was the focus of a report by OC Weekly alleging he contributed thousands of dollars to Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido’s political action committee to secure a spot on that city’s task force.
While not close to the rumored $10,000 donation to Pulido, Herzberg and other CalCann Holdings affiliates have donated over $1,700 to Seventh District Councilman Roberto Uranga’s officeholder account since the beginning of the year. The CalCann website also lists two locations in Long Beach (one store front, one cultivation site) as future CalCann Holdings facilities under its control based on “present deals in progress.”
Uranga said that his appointment of Herzberg and Larry King, another former original applicant, were made because of their extensive knowledge on the topic both locally and regionally. Appointing people without their broad experience would’ve been “prejudicial and unfair to the process” Uranga said in an email. Still, he said, the sheer size of the task force dictates that not any group of appointees and their perceived conflicts of interests can control the outcome.
“Everybody has an interest,” Uranga said. “I have an interest in getting the best ordinance possible that will address a sound and responsible process related to the issue such as regulatory principles, control, safety (both in relation to seed to sale and product), among other items of interest.”
The public input, both during council meetings and the task force meetings, have maintained that the interests of the public have not been met. Multiple statements made during public comment have alleged that the task force and its inability to come to a timely consensus were unnecessarily prolonging the process, and with it, inconvenience to medical cannabis patients of having to travel to other cities to acquire their medication.
Stefan Borst-Censullo, a marijuana advocacy lawyer and former staff member for First District Councilwoman Lena Gonzalez was on hand at the July 21 city council meeting, when a copy of the task force’s agenda was mistakenly agendized by Uranga as the final recommendations to be received and filed.
Censullo said that the recommendations were contradictory at best. The task force, which he thought should be dissolved and replaced with something similar to the provisions of LA’s Measure D, was something of a stalling effort by the council to let a potential statewide ballot measure next year determine the fate of medical marijuana in the city.
He said that given the high level of need within the city, now is the time for bravery on the issue, not additional waiting.
“Every time medical cannabis has gone before the city of Long Beach as a ballot measure, either statewide or locally, it’s passed tremendously,” Borst-Censullo said. “So there’s obviously a public want. When I worked here on the 14th floor, a majority of our calls were from people supporting it. There’s obviously a movement here; there’s a majority and growing sentiment in the community for safe and legal access that doesn’t negatively affect the community.”
The idea that the council could be biding its time while potential legislation makes its way through the state was openly discussed by the task force during its meeting last week. Talk of presenting the council with the option to delay action until the ballot measure either passed or failed prompted some members of the public to walk out in frustration, and some members of the task force to question whether the many hours spend debating buffer zones and other regulations were a waste of time.
“We were sent here to help write an ordinance for medical marijuana in Long Beach, not to extend a ban,” King said. “This is not our job to sit on a ban that could end up being indefinite.”
Letting a state ballot measure determine the outcome would relieve any pressure on the city council to proactive measures, but as some task force members pointed out, it would also leave the city left to play by the rules set by legislators that don’t necessarily know the needs of the city as intimately as they do. Like the city’s airport noise ordinance, restrictions on medical marijuana can only be made tougher than the state’s if they precede the state’s legislation.
While he admitted that no one on the task force knows the tally of the vote in regard to which way this ordinance will ultimately swing, Smith is convinced that it’s a possibility that the council members are waiting for the state to preempt them. In his eyes the proof lies in the fact that the council “punted” on a ordinance that was largely ready for adoption in February.
“I believe that giving them the option of blaming us for delaying until the state does something is a real service that we can do for them by providing them this option with all of our other recommendations,” Smith said. “If I were sitting in a city council seat, I might like to have 'continue the ban' coming from the task force as one of their recommendations to latch on to.”
Whether or not that’s the case will become more clear when the debate heads back to the council chambers September 1.