The Return of Reefer Madness

A growing number of East Bay cities have banned or are considering bans on medical marijuana dispensaries because of outdated, bogus fears.

Californians have recognized that cannabis is a legitimate medicine since 1996. That year, state voters legalized pot for medicinal purposes. But a decade and a half later, there’s a growing backlash against pot in the liberal East Bay. An increasing number of cities have banned or on the cusp of banning medical marijuana dispensaries. And they’re doing it based on out-of-date and unfounded fears reminiscent of the Reefer Madness scare of the 1930s.

Hayward decided to reject medical marijuana dispensaries last month after the city’s police union lobbied hard against them. And in the coming weeks, the City of Alameda may ban pot clubs outright. In addition, the county of Contra Costa and several East Bay cities, including Antioch, Brentwood, Concord, Oakley, Pinole, Pleasant Hill, and San Pablo all have banned them in the past several years. Although the 1996 voter initiative legalized medical marijuana, state law still allows cities and counties to prohibit the sale of it.

In the East Bay, cities are closing their borders to medical pot dispensaries in large part on the belief that they’re magnets for crime. But there is little evidence to support that claim. For example, Alameda city officials who want to ban cannabis are pointing to a “white paper” published last year by the California Police Chief’s Association and endorsed by numerous law enforcement officials around the state, including Contra Costa County District Attorney Bob Kochly. But a closer examination of the report reveals that it is deeply flawed and establishes no proof that medical marijuana facilities attract any more crime than other businesses.

Instead, the report highlights a few salacious crimes related to a handful of medical marijuana facilities, and warns that they attract “organized criminal gangs” and that some club operators “have been murdered by armed robbers both at their storefronts and homes.” But the report makes no mention of similar crimes affecting other legal businesses.

Moreover, the report focuses on pot clubs in communities that have failed to establish regulations on how they should operate, while ignoring the experiences of cities — including Berkeley and Oakland — that have adopted strict rules for medical marijuana facilities. The white paper and officials in cities that have banned pot clubs have failed to note that the medical marijuana facilities in both Berkeley and Oakland have generated almost no crime at all since those cities adopted their straightforward regulatory schemes.

In fact, the police departments in both cities say medical pot facilities now pose virtually no problems nor are they diverting precious resources away from crime-fighting. “We haven’t seen any issues involving medical marijuana dispensaries,” said Oakland police spokeswoman Holly Joshi. “They’re not generating a lot of calls for service,” said Berkeley police spokesman Andrew Frankel. “And they’re not a drain on resources.”

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and City Councilman Kriss Worthington, who often disagree on city issues, both agree that the three sanctioned medical marijuana dispensaries in the city have had virtually no crime associated with them. “The problem is that there’s a perception among people that the dispensaries attract crime,” Bates said, “but that hasn’t been our experience.”

“I can’t remember getting a single phone call from anybody about crime or other problems with the dispensary in my district,” said Worthington, who said many residents and business owners expressed fears before the dispensary opened. “But I have gotten calls from people who said, ‘Yeah, you were right — they don’t cause any problems.'”

In Oakland, Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan said that both police and neighbors of medical marijuana facilities now welcome them. “When we talk to police about the regulated dispensaries,” Kaplan said, “they tell us that they’re not just having less crime, they’re attracting zero crime.”

A complaint often heard in cities that have banned medical pot clubs or are considering banning them is that residents and businesses don’t want them in their neighborhoods. “At this time, staff is unable to identify any locations in Alameda that staff believes the community would deem to be acceptable,” Alameda Interim City Manager Ann Marie Gallant wrote in a report earlier this month, calling for a ban on pot clubs in her city — a proposal the city council plans to take up in the next several weeks.

But in Berkeley, many residents and businesses who opposed medical pot dispensaries opening near them now say they’re good neighbors. One reason is that the city’s three dispensaries all do an effective job policing themselves. All employ several security guards and enforce strict rules of behavior on their customers. So much so, that some neighbors contend their communities are safer because of the pot clubs’ presence, Worthington said.

Likewise, in Oakland, medical pot dispensaries have become part of the fabric of the city’s blossoming Uptown District, and the club owners are working to improve their neighborhoods and make them safer just like other businesses. “We have cannabis dispensaries that are members of the chamber of commerce,” Kaplan noted. “We have a cannabis dispensary operator who is the chair of his neighborhood crime prevention council.”

Another complaint lodged by city officials in both Hayward and Alameda is that they are just too busy to come up with their own regulatory schemes. However, neither city has looked closely at Berkeley or Oakland nor have they seriously considered adopting their successful regulations. Moreover, the decision by cities to ban pot clubs only makes it more difficult for sick people to obtain medicine that gives them relief.

However, the bans are not all bad. In fact, they’re helping the cash-strapped City of Oakland. That’s because Oakland taxes medical marijuana sales and so if other cities force patients to travel to Oakland to get medicine, then it brings in more revenue, noted Kaplan, who co-authored the city’s 2008 tax measure. In other words, not only are East Bay cities banning pot clubs out of unfounded fears, but they’re harming their own ability to raise funds during one the worst economic downturns since the last time the country was engulfed by Reefer Madness.


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