By Benjie Cooper
YouTube: Lucid’s Vlog
For nearly a year now, the Vista City Council has been attempting to find a solution to the issue of illegal cannabis dispensaries and delivery services operating within their borders. Currently, there is no licensing system in place to allow for their operation and owners are in violation of city zoning laws.
While Vista has utilized law enforcement to shut down close to fifty dispensaries, and levied fines against the operators, more shops, and delivery services continue to open than the city has police resources to close. It’s not uncommon for police to raid a store only to have them reopen within days; though sometimes it’s at a different location.
Medicinal cannabis dispensaries, or co-ops, have protections under state law and are not prosecuted as felony, or even misdemeanor offenses. Their activity is a rising-fee, fine-able offense, with the cap currently set at $1,000 in Vista.
In attempts to begin to try to address the issue, the Vista City Council held a meeting in March, 2017 where local patients spoke about their experiences with medical cannabis and dispensaries.
During the meeting, the council directed their staff to draft a proposal for dispensary regulation and taxation, stating that they would do the will of the voters regardless of their personal opinion.
In the year following, the council conducted a $35,000 survey to see how Vista residents felt about the issue and drafted a measure to license two dispensaries just as other citizen’s initiatives were circulating around town and gathering signatures.
One initiative gained approval from the council on September 26, 2017, when they unanimously approved the measure. Organizers gathered enough signatures to qualify for the November 6 ballot in 2018, but not enough to hold a special election as some had hoped.
For the remainder of 2017, the council left the topic untouched as they decided to wait until after the new year to reopen the subject.
During a meeting last night, the Vista City Council reviewed, and discussed an update prepared by Assistant City Manager Aly Zimmerman regarding their options for permitting medical cannabis cultivation, testing, retailers, and delivery.
Zimmerman began by reviewing the progression of the issue of cannabis regulation in Vista over the past year and talked about the current state of things in California. She pointed out possible concerns with moving forward, like the state’s currently-incomplete seed-to-sale tracking system, and the fact that the cannabis industry must work only with cash.
Jeff Sessions’ rescission of the Cole Memo and alleged return to the rule of law was also brought up, though Zimmerman said she was unsure of what the actual repercussions of that would be.
Zimmerman talked about the status of other cities around San Diego County and how they are proceeding with cannabis in their locale. She detailed El Cajon’s handling of illegal dispensaries where the city is fining dispensaries $2,500 per day per violation, starting with the first citation. Drastically increasing fines as such is a notion that council member John Franklin stated later in the meeting that he was interested in implementing in Vista.
According to Zimmerman, the fines are currently being challenged in court.
The council’s initial proposal allowed up to two retailers in the city, but in the new update presented by Zimmerman, up to four could be permitted in a commercial zone with a special-use permit.
Because there is no sales tax included in the city’s proposal, staff recommended that if the council decides to regulate cannabis in Vista, that they also draft a ballot initiative for November 2018 so that a special-use tax may be collected.
“You have that option,” she said. “To direct staff to do nothing, to do something at this time, or possibly to craft any of the permitted uses you’d like to look at into a ballot language that would go to the voters in November. Do you have any questions about possibilities for medical retailers?”
“I don’t see any,” said Mayor Judy Ritter as she and the other council members scanned the panel.
Zimmerman reviewed where the zoning for cannabis-related businesses would be before presenting possible options for delivery. The first proposed service would be located in the Industrial Zone or Business Park Specific Plan area.
The second option would integrate delivery services into the proposed two-to-four city dispensaries, and the third would allow delivery into locations within city limits from “medicinal retailers who are permitted in other jurisdictions.”
While none of the options were ultimately agreed upon during the meeting, the third one was the least well-received by the council as it offered no realistic possibility of taxing delivery services based in other cities.
The next section of the update that Zimmerman presented to the city council included three steps that the staff recommended they take should they decide to allow cultivation. They proposed that they determine its impact on the current tenant makeup of the industrial and business zones, and only permit indoor grow operations.
The staff also recommended that implementation of a cultivation program be delayed until the state’s track and trace program is fully functional.
In the last section of the update, Zimmerman reviewed bullet points from a council discussion in September regarding the possibility of allowing cannabis testing facilities to operate solely under special-use permits in the industrial zones. She stated that in her research, she had as of yet not found any cities that had been able to implement a tax on cannabis testing labs successfully.
Following the Zimmerman’s presentation, the council heard from members of the public on both sides of the issue. Some residents complained about illegal dispensaries in their neighborhoods, and others urged the council not to allow legal shops to open because they believe they would be dealing with the same problems.
A number of members of the community came out to voice their support of something being done to regulate cannabis in Vista, with helping the patients being their primary focus.
“I do it on a daily basis,” said one local man, talking about helping patients with medical cannabis. “I deliver stuff that I grow myself at my house and give freely to friends who have cancer, have epilepsy, have so many different things. And there’s just so many benefits to this, yet we’re gonna limit the ability for these people to get their prescriptions.”
Some of those who came up to speak expressed their concerns about underage teens having access to cannabis if legal dispensaries are allowed. They complained that the shops are currently a common place for teenagers to obtain cannabis. Legal dispensaries would probably not have this problem as electronic age-verification steps would likely be implemented to prevent access and purchase by minors.
When members of the public were finished talking, members of the council took turns to speak and relay their thoughts on everything that had been presented throughout the meeting.
“I want to bring up the issue of enforcement of those who are consistently violating our laws,” said member John Franklin regarding the current host of unzoned dispensaries operating in the city. “And I want to make two suggestions. The first is, I want to make a motion that we also increase our penalties to $2,500 per-incident, per-day on the first incident.”
“I think that’s an excellent idea,” he said. “And I’d like us to join ranks with El Cajon in fighting the case; I’d like us to be a part of that.”
“And then the other thing is,” Franklin continued. “I’d like us to consider taking whatever actions that we need to to encourage the sheriff and our sheriff’s personnel to pursue a federal task force agreement with the DEA so that we can enforce federal laws through our city law enforcement mechanisms.”
Franklin stated that he is committed to the will of the voters, though he said he would not vote for any ballot initiatives and would encourage people not to endorse them.
The rest of the council did not appear to be as enthusiastic about the probability of increasing fines on unlicensed dispensaries and brought up that, due to city codes, there is a limit to the amount that can be collected for such infractions.
Council member Joe Green voiced his continued support for adopting a resolution, citing the overwhelming support indicated on the council’s survey in 2017 combined with the fact that medicinal cannabis has been allowed in California since 1996.
Green spoke about the future of cannabis in the state, and the revolution that will be happening in the coming decades. He talked about not wanting to wait to see what the overall climate of the scene is and instead advocated taking a more progressive attitude toward the situation.
“I don’t need to wait for other cities to do things before I do things,” said Green. “I can do what my citizens want; I know what I was elected to do. And I feel like by implementing the policy right now prior to the vote being done, I’m at least prepping the city for what is to come, in my opinion.”
“I do not support a ballot measure contradicting that ballot measure,” he continued. “The survey that we spent all the money on specifically said ‘Hey! If you want to defeat it, put another ballot measure up against it!’”
“And I feel if we do that,” he said. “We are doing our citizens a huge disservice.”
Deputy Mayor John Aguilera expressed his concerns over the various things he saw as problems with the whole issue.
“We can’t track and trace,” he said. “We can’t tax, there’s no banking options for them, and there’s no federal government cooperation either. That still concerns me; I know it concerns others on this council as well.”
“As you all know, in the past I’ve said I did not support this personally,” said Aguilera. “But I will listen to the voters, and I think we will have to. You know, it’s the will of the people, and it’s just the way it’s gonna be.”
Other members of the council took turns expressing their points of view on the topic-at-hand before Mayor Ritter spoke.
“I believe that marijuana is a gateway drug,” said Ritter. “And I think for kids, and I think they get used to that high. And the next high is Oxycontin; and I know we’re having a big thing with that all over the nation. And so I would say that there’s too much substance abuse out there, so I don’t support that.”
Mayor Ritter talked about how she felt dispensaries increased crime and added an increased burden on the sheriff.
“So I’m seeing a consensus,” said Zimmerman when the mayor was finished speaking. “If not a majority who would like to maintain the status quo on retail.”
And that’s just what the council voted to do.
In a final statement council member, Joe Green passionately argued as to why he believes dispensaries should be allowed in Vista. He talked about how people who are genuinely sick and need cannabis as their medicine should not have to be forced to feel like criminals when they go to buy their CBD or THC; which is how many feel when they go to purchase their meds at a local unlicensed dispensary.
So for now, the Vista City Council has opted to maintain the policy of raiding and citing unzoned dispensaries until the citizens force the issue one way or the other on the November ballot.