A stunned silence fell over the crowd Tuesday evening, as the vote was revealed to phase medical marijuana back into the City of Long Beach, but not in the time-frame or in the quantity that the proposed ordinance had outlined.
After hours of debate on an issue that has eaten up the better part of seven years in the Long Beach City Council Chamber, a substitute motion from one of the topic’s biggest critics garnered the necessary votes to amend the ordinance, stripping it of two possible business permits.
Third District Councilmember Suzie Price’s substitute motion called for the use of a phased approach, at first allowing for the delivery of medical marijuana in the city for four businesses, and after a six-month review process, the possibility of four storefront operations being combined and integrated with the existing delivery services. It also called for a consideration to add three additional storefronts, making for a total of seven city-wide.
The motion passed with a 5-4 vote, with only council members Rex Richardson, Roberto Uranga, Dee Andrews and Vice Mayor Suja Lowenthal in opposition.
Price, who has long voiced concerns of fiscal responsibility of a medical marijuana policy in Long Beach, grilled Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna on the potential hit to police funding as they might have to invest more dollars to deal with nuisances they had experienced with the industry in the past.
Luna talked at length of the 142 search warrants served for “rogue dispensaries” during the city’s last dance with the medical marijuana industry, an effort that he said cost over 5,600 hours of man power. He maintained such manpower could’ve been diverted elsewhere. Luna also said it's expected that for every dispensary the council were to approve, the department anticipates four rogue businesses to open as well.
“I think everyone in this room understands the Compassionate Use Act, and that we’re trying to find a way to provide marijuana to people who may need it, but with our enforcement action that we’ve taken, unfortunately we see a lot of these businesses who are not being very honest up front,” Luna said. “Not only with the marijuana that they’re selling, but the money that they’re taking in.”
The projected cost to the city according to Assistant City Manager Tom Modica is roughly $3 million per year in extra enforcement, with an equal net projected revenue stream from medical marijuana taxes. Modica also said that one-time ramp-up fees for enforcement would come in at around $1.6 million, money that would be taken out of the city’s general fund.
“I fear that storefronts in the City of Long Beach at this time is not a prudent move,” Price said. “It should cause us great concern that we’re going to spend 1.6 million dollars of one-time surplus funds that we could be using on infrastructure projects, or deferred maintenance of our city buildings, roofs that need to be replaced, infrastructure projects that are desperately needing attention, to invest in an industry that at the very best is going to break even.”
The decision roiled those advocates and potential business owners in the crowd that had showed up with optimism that the council would vote into effect the drafted ordinance which provided for nine dispensaries citywide. Instead, the proposed amendments will whittle that initial number down to four delivery services, business ventures that will be immersed into the pool of about 40 delivery businesses that already service Long Beach from neighboring cities.
“You are creating a self-fulfilling, police-centric policy because you will have lines out the store, therefore public nuisance, therefore police calls, therefore enforcement efforts and we’ve kind of gone backward,” said Jeff Abrams of One Love Beach Club of the decision to even further restrict the number of possible storefronts. “So please, lets think about that Wal-Martization.”
There had already been concerns of a “bottleneck effect” created by the proposed ordinance’s cap of one dispensary per district, but many of those who voiced those concerns were set to compromise as a vote to approve would finally put the ball back in motion to get legal storefronts back in operation. However, that quickly changed as members of the council immediately began to re-write the ordinance in real time as the discussion commenced.
Vice Mayor Suja Lowenthal, who in September directed the city attorney’s office to draft the ordinance brought to the council floor last night, stayed the course in her defense that a decision had been put off long enough. She also refuted the idea that an industry should be singled out by a “beneficiary pays-type model” to the extent that some members of council sought for dispensaries, as there are current business operators in her district—Wal-Mart—that place a significant strain on the police department with its annual volume of calls for service.
“I think in the seven years that we’ve attempted to have some reasonable policy in place, we’ve come to a place where we can take a measured approach and that measured approach is really a number as small as nine,” Lowenthal said. “I don’t have any data of what a city of our size would really require if we were to meet all the needs of people who were in medical need of medical marijuana, but I don’t think we’re here to determine that because none of us is an expert on that.”
With last night's vote, a new ordinance will be drafted that will come back to the council chambers for more discussion and approval. Price, in driving her point home about the fiscal impacts the industry could have on a city with years of budget deficits on the horizon, turned to the rhetorical as she addressed the crowd filled with advocates, all of whom quickly vacated the council chambers in the wake of the vote.
“I look out in the audience and I see a lot of lobbyists and I see a lot of business owners and I just wonder, if this was your city, would you believe that this was a good financial decision to make?” Price asked.