A collection of vocal and passionate anti-cannabis residents attempted to relitigate legalizing recreational cannabis at the Pacific Grove City Council meeting on Sept. 2, but it was a larger group of residents in the background who didn’t speak out that night that held sway.
Sixty nine percent of P.G. voters voted in favor of statewide legalization in the November 2016 election, according to City Manager Ben Harvey. On that foundation, the council voted 4-3 in favor of an ordinance that would allow one retail cannabis store in town. The ordinance originally called for two cannabis locations.
Under the ordinance, the city would receive between 5-7 percent of the gross sales under the conditions of a community benefit plan, bringing in between $225,000 and $270,000 annually in revenue, Harvey said. Eventually that arrangement would end after a tax measure is placed on the ballot, possibly November 2022, or sooner, Harvey told the council. The plan would also require the retailer contribute to enhancing public safety and to prevention and substance abuse education.
Harvey said the choice of which cannabis business gets to take a retail spot would fall on a five-member committee, two members chosen by the City Council and three chosen by the city manager: himself, the Pacific Grove Police chief and the community development director.
A lineup of people argued that cannabis would bring crime and addiction to America’s Last Hometown, using some of the same arguments that were used in the campaign against Prop. 64 in 2016. Representatives from the Pacific Grove Unified School District urged the council to vote against the ordinance, including Superintendent Ralph Porras and Safety Director Barbara Martinez, who worried about the easy access of cannabis and safety of children exposed to those using it.
Some complained that there hadn’t been enough public input and that the item was moving too fast. Harvey proposed a timeline that could possibly mean a development proposal before the Planning Commission as early as Nov. 12.
Councilmember Joe Amelio, firmly against the ordinance for safety reasons and a desire to protect P.G.’s character, gave his own slideshow presentation that lasted nearly 20 minutes.
If there is a rush to get an ordinance in place, Amelio suggested that it could have something to do with a push from owners of a high-end cannabis franchise called The Apothecarium, which has stores in San Francisco, Berkeley and Las Vegas, with one recently approved in Capitola. Amelio said the company is interested in purchasing the building previously occupied on Lighthouse Avenue downtown by Pier 1 Imports, which filed for bankruptcy in May.
Mayor Bill Peake and Councilmember Jenny McAdams were also strongly against the ordinance but their focus was more on the swiftness of putting the ordinance into action and other concerns.
Both Peake and McAdams were critical of Harvey for not answering questions the council had after it discussed the possibility of a new ordinance back in December. Those questions included finding out where minors are accessing cannabis products, banking issues and the sales of CBD and hemp products.
Peake sharply criticized Harvey for taking staff time away from other matters during the pandemic to pursue the cannabis ordinance. McAdams said she didn’t like the rush or the ordinance. “I think it’s flawed,” she said. She called it “a complete failure if we pass this tonight.”
Four councilmembers stood in favor as long as the ordinance was amended to one location instead of two: Mayor Pro Tempore Robert Huitt, Cynthia Garfield, Nick Smith and Amy Tomlinson. Garfield pushed back on arguments that cannabis was dangerous, citing statistics on the negative impacts of alcohol. Smith—who is running for reelection in November—said the city could use the revenue in place by 2021 while the city was losing other businesses forced to close due to the pandemic.
“This is an opportunity to put a business in there that will make some money and going to help strengthen the city finances and help the businesses, like all boats rise together,” Smith said. Because cannabis businesses are highly regulated, he believed they would not be as unsafe as some suggested. He also said he believed illegal cannabis would flourish more in an area without the regulations the ordinance would provide.
The four-member vote in favor of the ordinance on its first reading means that it will come back for a second reading on Sept. 16.