Medical marijuana card holders will not be allowed to grow cannabis for their own consumption after a vote Monday, as the Merced City Council figures out what cultivation and dispensaries should be permitted in the city.
The council unanimously passed the ordinance with a 6-0 vote, which allows it to keep the city’s say over marijuana cultivation and sales. Councilman Noah Lor was absent.
Cultivation and sales of cannabis have never been legal in Merced, city leaders noted, but the city needed to pass the ordinance if it wanted to retain local control on regulations. State bills passed in October would put the city under the state’s marijuana regulations if the council does not complete an ordinance by March 1.
The council chambers Monday were full, and about two dozen speakers shared how medical cannabis has aided them or their loved ones.
Ryan Bartley, 30, of Merced said he has a condition that makes him itch, and doctors have not been able to pinpoint the problem. He said he once took so much of an antihistamine that he landed in a hospital.
Cannabis has given him safe relief from the condition, he said.
“Marijuana does not have to be harmful,” he said. “It does not have to be something where we criminalize patients.”
Another medical marijuana advocate, Christopher Gonzalez, 36, of Merced, said regular use has been beneficial to his 65-year-old mother-in-law, who lives with Alzheimer’s disease and sundown syndrome.
A number of speakers tried to appeal to the council with an argument that marijuana sales will increase tax revenue and provide jobs. It’s unclear how much the city stands to make from the industry.
Mayor Stan Thurston said he’s not seeing dollar signs.
“I find the argument that we’re going to make a bunch of money on this – I find that despicable,” he said. “That’s no reason to do this.”
Advocates pushed back, saying Merced is in no place to turn away more revenue. The advocates even have local business on their side.
“The chamber supports responsible planning, responsible use of medical marijuana,” said Adam Cox, CEO of the Greater Merced Chamber of Commerce.
Still more advocates argue that not allowing dispensaries or delivery services makes it harder to get regulated medical marijuana. Some said they don’t want to have to buy it on the street, where they may have to deal with unsavory people and unsafe products.
Rex Petersen, owner of Healing Solutions Delivery Inc., said his company delivers in Merced and Stanislaus counties.
“I provide safe access to anybody who needs it,” he said.
The Merced meeting was sometimes contentious, with the mayor asking the crowd to be silent more than once. Members of the audience called out and even booed at points during the meeting.
Councilman Kevin Blake noted the possibility the state could legalize marijuana for recreational use. An initiative to approve recreational use could be on the November ballot if advocates get enough signatures by Feb. 4.
“I give it a year or two and this may all be irrelevant,” he said about the debate surrounding the local ordinance.
No member of the council voiced any doubt that cannabis benefits those using it for medical purposes. They said they needed more time to draft the proper ordinance.
Councilman Michael Belluomini said the city should allow for dispensaries in designated areas. He brushed off any argument that medical marijuana cards are too easily prescribed.
“That sort of needs to be a state problem,” he said. “The people who control pharmacists and doctors, they need to jump on that. I don’t see that as a local issue that we need to tackle.”
The council said it needs to do more research to determine the maximum number of dispensaries that should be allowed in Merced, which zones would be best for dispensaries or delivery services, and if outdoor cultivation has setbacks. The council will also look into getting input from experts.
City staff members said the study of alternatives and public study sessions will have to take place after the ordinance becomes law. A second reading of the ordinance will be at the next meeting, on Jan. 19. The ordinance becomes official 30 days later.