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Featured Image: The city will examine local controls and tax measures to regulate cannabis stores, should dispensaries, much like the Medicine Woman Dispensary in Bellflower pictured here, become legalized through a ballot initiative. Photo: Courtesy of Luke Burrett
By Breeana Greenberg
The city will investigate opportunities and methods to maintain local control and tax measures when it comes to regulating cannabis stores, should a ballot initiative invite the cannabis industry to Dana Point.
During a Feb. 1 meeting, Dana Point City Council voted, 3-2, with Councilmembers Richard Viczorek and Michael Villar opposed, to examine controls, mitigations and regulations on storefronts, including a tax measure ordinance.
Proposition 64, the Control, Regulate and Tax Adult Use of Marijuana Act that passed in 2016, decriminalized the personal possession of cannabis in California for adults, 21 years of age and older. Currently, the city bans the operation of medical or recreational marijuana dispensaries.
As more and more California cities face citizen ballot initiatives to remove bans in place and allow for the legal operation of cannabis retail, the city is looking at how to maintain local control in the event such a measure passes in Dana Point.
El Monte, Huntington Beach, Jurupa Valley, Lake Forest, Long Beach and South El Monte have all been served by citizen initiatives, according to a presentation from Hdl Companies, a consulting firm that works with local governments on economic development, tax revenues and cannabis compliance.
“With this as the backdrop, and to be prepared should it become an allowable activity in town, we embarked on identifying practices for regulation and oversight with a particular eye on preserving public safety,” City Manager Mike Killebrew said.
The city contracted with FM3, a research group that provides strategic advice based on public opinion research, to conduct a survey of Dana Point’s likely voters. FM3 interviewed 526 voters through telephone or online interviews, gauging public opinion on cannabis retail businesses.
Of the surveyed population, more than two-thirds were not aware that it is currently illegal to operate a dispensary or cannabis business in Dana Point. FM3 Vice President Adam Sonenshein explained that with the varying local and state laws, some residents are not clear on what the rules are.
Fifty-two percent of those surveyed were in support of the city establishing regulations to allow for medical and recreational businesses to operate in Dana Point, whereas 42% were opposed. The percentage of those in support of regulations grew to 61% when the surveyor informed participants that cannabis businesses could bring in taxes and fees for city services.
“The reality is, it’s coming, it’s here in delivery already,” Councilmember Jamey Federico said. “What we’re losing are the tax dollars. So, all of those delivery trucks that you see driving around town, if you were to look at, I guess, Weedmaps, or whatever it is, it’s coming here and sales-tax dollars are going to Santa Ana.”
Damian Collins is a Dana Point resident who owns multiple local businesses, as well as a cannabis dispensary in Bellflower. During public comments, Collins stated that his dispensary alone brings in $1 million in taxes to the City of Bellflower each year.
During public comments, several residents spoke against lifting the ban on dispensaries in Dana Point, and there was a mix of opinions in written comments. Resident Katie Armstrong moved to Dana Point from the Los Angeles area three years ago and spoke against allowing dispensaries to operate in the city.
“I love this wholesome little town, and I don’t think this fits in the wholesome little town that this is,” Armstrong said. “I think there are better ways to look for revenue, better businesses. I don’t see why the city would approve any new business with the safety concerns that were outlined by the presenters. Why would we approve a business that requires a background check to be around?”
Echoing some of those residents’ concerns, Councilmember Villar emphasized the responsibility he feels as a baseball and soccer coach to many of the community’s children.
“I have a responsibility as a coach and a mentor to understand that this drug is a gateway; there’s no doubt about it,” Villar said. “It leads to other things, and when we normalize this in our community, it starts to seep into areas that we don’t want it to be.”
Overwhelmingly, voters surveyed were strongly in favor of imposing strict regulations on dispensaries, such as requiring operators and employees to be subject to criminal background checks; requiring security cameras and guards; and prohibiting business within 1,000 feet of a school, child care facility or sober living home or in any residential zone.
David McPherson, compliance director at Hdl, explained that voter initiatives take away a lot of local control and regulations that those polled had favored in the survey. The ballot measures may not require the same restrictions that the city would want to enact, such as background checks and zoning buffers.
“These initiatives do not meet those thresholds; they are not good policy for policy makers or communities,” McPherson said.
Collins noted that in many cities when a citizen initiative pushes a ballot measure allowing for cannabis businesses, those initiatives push for fewer restrictions, less-strict regulations and may even restrict local control.
“I’ve seen the cities do it really wrong, I’ve seen the cities that did it really poorly,” Collins said. “In that I have businesses in Dana Point, I want to make sure that the city does it the right way. And that’s why I thought them writing the ordinance was so important, rather than letting an initiative come in.”
While there’s no ballot measure proposed in Dana Point, there are several groups already working on an initiative, according to Collins, who spoke with Dana Point Times this week.
Mayor Joe Muller added that a grand jury report recently showed that there was no increase in crime along with legal cannabis retail stores. The report added that in Santa Ana, the city used taxes and fees on the dispensaries to fund enforcement efforts.
A decade from now, Councilmember Jamey Federico predicted, “retail cannabis will probably be in every one of these towns in South Orange County, Orange County, and in the State of California, whether it’s by some sort of action in Sacramento or a ballot measure done by the industry, statewide, or by lots of individual citywide ballot measures. We’re not going backwards.”
Federico also said that younger people tend to be more in favor of cannabis than older people, adding that each year, younger people make up a larger and larger percentage of the vote.
“What we’re doing is ignoring the future and, in the meantime, missing out on all the tax dollars that go with that,” Federico said. “And quite frankly, I think we can bury our heads in the sand and do nothing, or we can engage this issue like we are doing rationally and try to look at if this happens in our town, and when, how we put all those things in place that mitigate the issues that are concerns for our residents.”
Viczorek stated that he supported the ban on dispensaries in Dana Point in 2015 and continues to support the ban in 2022.
“I hear what everyone’s saying, that there’s a possibility there could be an initiative and we’re going to lose local control,” Viczorek said. “I don’t find that position persuasive. … It’s very hard to predict the future.”
“You say it’s going to happen in the future; it’s easy to say things like that, and no one can ever prove you wrong,” he continued. “Maybe it will happen in two years, five years, 100 years, but you can never be proven wrong when you say something like that.”
Breeana Greenberg is the city reporter for the Dana Point Times. She graduated from Chapman University with a bachelor of arts degree in English. Before joining Picket Fence Media, she worked as a freelance reporter with the Laguna Beach Independent. Breeana can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org