Last week the Bakersfield City Council made a mistake.
Councilmembers rejected a source of new revenue while simultaneously discussing tax increases to meet a looming multimillion dollar deficit.
I’m talking about the council’s ban on all commercial cannabis activity, including its potential tax revenue, during the same meeting it learned it will face a $16 million shortfall by the 2022-23 fiscal year.
If only irony made for good public policy.
In 2016, California voters approved Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act. Proposition 64 legalized recreational marijuana for persons 21 years or older and established sales and cultivation taxes. It also allowed for cities and counties to choose whether to regulate or prohibit commercial cannabis activities.
More than 57 percent of California voters supported Proposition 64.
In Kern County, 54 percent of voters opposed Proposition 64.
So, the Bakersfield City Council voted 5-1 for the ban. Councilman Willie Rivera was the lone vote against the ban. Councilman Chris Parlier was absent.
Bakersfield has prohibited medical marijuana dispensaries within city limits since 2013. “We want to make it clear that the City of Bakersfield doesn’t allow any form of marijuana,” City Attorney Ginny Gennaro has said.
The city’s record on enforcing that stance has been murky at best.
One need only drive down H Street, three blocks south of City Hall and the Bakersfield Police Department, to see that the city’s de jure ban is a de facto flop. Some estimate there are between 60 and 80 dispensaries operating illegally in Bakersfield. The only thing made clear by Bakersfield’s ban on commercial marijuana activities is that the city has no desire to benefit from the emerging cannabis industry.
It’s projected that marijuana farms, retail shops and support services could bring thousands of jobs and $30 million in new revenue to Kern County. The city should regulate marijuana. That way it can limit the number and location of pot shops, ensure products meet testing requirements and control distribution lines. All while collecting property and sales taxes and permit fees. Instead, the city must either enforce its marijuana ban without any additional revenue or turn a blind eye as black-market dispensaries continue to operate and expand.
City Councilwoman Jacquie Sullivan posted a video on a Facebook page for “Kern County Get Off the Pot,” in which she contends that regulated commercial marijuana activity will affect “generations to come,” making it “easier for young families to fall into a lifetime of drug addiction.” The video ends with her asking, “Is this what is best for our community?”
Frankly, she’s wrong.
Marijuana is not a dangerous drug. When used in moderation it has little to no ill effects, no better or worse than the alcoholic drink or two most Americans regularly enjoy. Even in excess, it has fewer and less severe side effects than alcohol. Our nation is afflicted by a fatal opioid epidemic and rampant prescription painkiller abuse. There is no documented case of a lethal human overdose from marijuana.
Bakersfield residents will still be allowed to possess marijuana. They will still be able to use marijuana in the city of Bakersfield. They will be able to grow plants for personal use. But, Bakersfield will derive no benefits.
Is this what’s best for our community?
Recent research shows pot use among young people is at its lowest levels in the past 20 years and a majority of the nation’s adults believe it’s time for marijuana to come out of the shadows.
I’m not a marijuana user, but I voted “yes” on Proposition 64. I support legalizing the adult use of marijuana. I also advocate for removing marijuana from the Drug Enforcement Agency’s list of Schedule 1 controlled substances.
I know a handful of regular marijuana users. They’re responsible, highly educated professionals. They own their homes. Some of them have children; they’re good parents who actively participate in their kids’ lives. These are hardly the degenerates Sullivan describes.
Clearly, I was in the minority in Kern County. But it’s time for the majority of voters who opposed Proposition 64 to adopt some pragmatism and expect their councilmembers to do the same.
Returning to the issue of Bakersfield’s pending budget crisis, staff shared that the city will need to increase revenue through tax increases, trimming expenses or both.
While shunning a new industry and expanded tax base, councilmembers have the gall to consider a regressive tax increase that will hurt Bakersfield families to meet rising CalPERS and staff-related costs.
“Standing up” against commercial marijuana activity makes for great virtue signaling, but like the existing ban on medical marijuana dispensaries, it’s worthless without enforcement. Bakersfield has a real revenue problem, and the City Council missed an opportunity to help close that gap.
I’m waiting to hear how Bakersfield will pay to fix roads, pick up the trash and meet pension obligations with virtue signaling. Maybe it’s the next Bitcoin.
More likely, it’s just another example of poor public policy.
Contributing columnist Justin Salters writes weekly on politics, culture and civic engagement; the views expressed are his own. Reach him at Facebook.com/thatjustinsalters, Twitter @justinsalters or firstname.lastname@example.org.