The Bakersfield City Council voted on Wednesday to move forward with the process to ban all commercial cannabis activity in town.
The council approved a first reading of an amendment to its commercial cannabis ordinance that would make it clear that all business pot activity such as cultivation, manufacturing and distribution is illegal inside city limits. Councilman Willie Rivera was the lone "no" vote.
"I am in favor of this changing of the ordinance. I think it solidifies our position, and it's obviously what the voters of Bakersfield want," Vice Mayor Bob Smith said. "If anytime in the future things change, we can always change, but I think at this point in time, this is our best option."
The city already bans medical marijuana dispensaries in town. The goal of the proposed ban is to prevent the state from issuing permits to companies outside of medical marijuana dispensaries after Jan. 1, when provisions of Proposition 64 take effect.
California voters approved Proposition 64 in November 2016. It set the framework for the state to begin issuing permits for many activities related to non-medical and adult-use marijuana, including cultivation, manufacturing, distribution and sale.
The state will not issue permits if they would violate local ordinances. The use of marijuana will still be legal, however.
Councilman Rivera said that while he doesn't want the continued growth of marijuana dispensaries in the city, he feels that the action the city has taken so far on the issue hasn't been very effective.
"I continue to be frustrated at the lack of control we have over a situation that is really, in my mind, running wild," he said. "I don't believe what we're doing is working, and I believe anybody ... would be hard-pressed to make a good argument that what we're doing is actually working."
Rivera said eight dispensaries in town have been shut down since this January. Since then, he said 10 new dispensaries have opened, showing that the ban has been ineffective.
"I cannot, in good conscience, stand up here and tell you that the action we're taking tonight is going to do anything to mitigate a problem that I think is serious," he said.
Rivera also said the financial benefits of choosing regulation over banning, such as sales tax revenue and additional funding at the state and federal level, is also something that should be considered.
"i think what we're doing this evening is really a missed opportunity," he said. "I think other parts of the state are seizing on a real opportunity to take advantage of revenue that hasn't been there before. The City of Bakersfield isn't flush with cash. I'm not suggesting we start licensing every dispensary that wants to operate in Bakersfield; I'm telling you what we're doing isn't working, and I don't know why we would consider doing the same thing we've been doing."
Prior to the decision, several residents spoke at the meeting urging the council to get more information before moving forward with the ban. Local Attorney Gabriel Godinez asked the council to hold off on a vote because the County of Kern is in the process of developing an Environmental Impact Report regarding cannabis that could be useful to the city. The report comes as the county is in the process of deciding whether to regulate or ban commercial pot activity in unincorporated areas.
"I would encourage the City Council to take the bull by the horns, use and review the EIR regarding cannabis in the state and how it's going to affect the county," he said. "The report is part of the county's process of deciding whether to regulate or ban commercial pot activity in unincorporated areas. It will have a lot of the information that would be very relevant to the city as well."
Godinez said the council should consider the costs of enforcing the ban from a law enforcement standpoint. He said the county estimates that it would cost between $2 and $3 million, which could come from taxpayers.
"The public has the right to know where that money is going to come from. Those cities and counties that enforce a ban, it will not get any money from the state," he said. "I request staff to get more information to council members so that the decision is being made with all the information available. There's opportunity here for city to do the right thing for everyone across the board."
Bakersfield resident and former mayoral candidate T.J. Esposito said regulation rather than banning may be more effective in reducing illegal activity as well as providing more safety to marijuana users.
"We have had an explosion of illegal dispensaries. More than 100 storefront dispensaries are operating and not paying taxes," he said. "Since everything is totally unregulated, it has caused an environment of illegal activity. From a public safety standpoint, the patients that choose to use marijuana in legal fashion are getting marijuana that is not tested. They're consuming these things that are unsafe, unregulated, untested. That's irresponsible. It's your job to protect citizens, whether they choose [to use marijuana] or not."
The council is set to approve a second reading of the amended ordinance during an October meeting.
This story was corrected Sept. 21 clarifying that eight dispensaries have been shut down this year.