Council reconsiders pot farm permits, discusses redevelopment funds

Mayor Jean Quan and Walter Cohen, head of CEDA, present information on Governor Brown's proposal to eliminate redevelopment funds. Photo by Sam Bryson

Mayor Jean Quan and Walter Cohen, head of CEDA, present information on Governor Brown's proposal to eliminate redevelopment funds. Photo by Sam Bryson

Without voting on a single ordinance, members of a beleaguered Oakland City Council spent Tuesday night’s meeting discussing their two most pressing concerns: threats of prosecution by the state and federal government over the city’s plan to permit industrial cannabis cultivation, and dramatic budget cuts from the governor.

In a lengthy discussion, the council considered District 6 councilmember Desley Brooks’ revised Cannabis Cultivation Ordinance, which would make changes to a regulation the council approved last November. The original ordinance, which is still on the books, allows the city to give business permits to four large-scale cannabis growers, and to regulate and tax these businesses. Brooks said her proposal was meant to bring the ordinance in line with state law.

Brooks proposed the changes in light of a December warning from Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley that the ordinance puts city officials in danger of prosecution for violation of state and federal laws. Since selling and growing marijuana is illegal under federal law, and only allowed for consumption under California law in specific circumstances, O’Malley warned that regulating medical cannabis could be fraught with legal peril. “It remains an open question whether public officers or public employees who aid and abet or conspire to violate state or federal laws in furtherance of a city ordinance, are exempt from criminality,” O’Malley wrote in a December letter to Mayor Jean Quan.

“I believe there is an urgency, because, oh my God, the Feds are coming,” Brooks said at Tuesday night’s meeting.

Brooks and Council President Larry Reid said that the proposed new ordinance is meant to better comply with state law and to assure that cannabis would not be “diverted,” or sold to non-patients who do not have medical marijuana cards. The new ordinance would require cultivators to operate a separate business site for dispensing cannabis. It also would limit the amount of space cultivators can use to grow cannabis to 50,000 square feet.

Councilmembers had previously met with city staff during two closed sessions to plan their response to O’Malley’s warning, but Brooks’ revised ordinance didn’t clear the necessary procedural hurdles to stand to a vote at Tuesday’s meeting. District 4 councilmember Libby Schaaf said that the ordinance didn’t qualify for a special vote, and District 3 councilmember Nancy Nadel asked that it be brought before the council later.

Oaklanders voiced their thoughts on the revised ordinance even though Brooks withdrew her motion to vote. Angel Raich, a medical marijuana patient and activist whose unsuccessful suit against the federal government for restricting her use of medical cannabis went to the US Supreme Court in 2004, handed the council three pages of concerns. Raich said that the proposed ordinance uses different medical definitions that qualify patients for medical cannabis than state law does, and that the limited number of plants allowed per patient doesn’t account for crop failure, which could ultimately reduce a grower’s yield.

Raich said oversights in the ordinance could “negatively affect taxes that go to the city, and negatively affect patients.” Raich has an application in with the city for one of the cannabis cultivation permits.

Other community members and activists worried that the cap for square footage of plants was too high to escape notice from the federal government, and alternatively that any backpedaling by the city council could discourage other cities from passing similar regulation ordinances.

Councilmember-at-large Rebecca Kaplan echoed the worry that Oakland could lose its status as a forerunner in regulating medical cannabis. “We are recognized as a national model,” Kaplan said. “I think it’s important that we continue along that path.”

Brooks said her goal was to foster public discussion of the how the city should react to threats of prosecution. “Even if we don’t pass it… this draft is out in the public,” Brooks said, “and the citizens have the right to give us comments tonight, to give us proper direction.”

The council also discussed Governor Jerrry Brown’s proposal to transfer city redevelopment funds to the state budget. Mayor Jean Quan and Walter Cohen, director of the Community and Economic Development Agency (CEDA) briefed the council on possible reactions from city government.

But by the end of the three-hour long meeting, the future of Oakland’s redevelopment agency—which focuses on creating affordable housing, revitalizing business districts, and other activities intended to improve a city’s economy and which Brown’s plan would eliminatewas as unclear as the fate of Oakland’s cannabis ordinance.

Cohen said the governor’s proposal didn’t provide details on how funding will be reorganized after shifting funds from city to state.  “There are lots of issues that need to be resolved,” Cohen said. “Namely, does the state have the authority to dissolve redevelopment agencies?” The agencies are funded by property taxes, and while Brown’s proposal says that “successor agencies” will take over responsibilities some of the redevelopment agencies’ funding, Cohen said that nobody is quite sure which organizations will take control of them.

Currently, the city council is the governing body of Oakland’s redevelopment agency and directs its actions, but Cohen said the successor agencies might turn out to be cities themselves. If so, the council might continue overseeing the projects normally carried out by Oakland’s redevelopment agency, but with less funding.

Quan told the council that she and the nine mayors from California’s 10 biggest cities will meet with Brown’s finance director next week to discuss details of how the proposal would work. “The scary thing is that folks in Sacramento have not a clue what redevelopment is,” Quan said, adding that even Brown, formerly Oakland’s mayor, seems to have forgotten the extent to which the redevelopment agency provides funding for the city. “We have a special responsibility to make this real,” Quan said.

Brown originally asked the legislature if they could pass the budget on March 1 and make it effective on the same day. However, Brown hasn’t submitted any legislative language for lawmakers to look at, and the legislature has until June 15 to pass a budget. At the January 17 Oakland City Council meeting, the council voted to send city lobbyists to Sacramento to voice concern over the governor’s proposal. Reid said that he would also pay the capitol a visit on Wednesday to address the issue.

Brooks urged redevelopment staff and her fellow councilmembers to secure funding for development projects currently in the pipeline. “We have some real projects on the table that don’t have full funding, and we have money right now,” Brooks said. “We can’t just watch it go out the door.”

You can read more coverage of marijuana regulations in Oakland on our marijuana topics page.

Update: This article originally said that the city council passed an ordinance to give eight permits to large scale marijuana cultivators. The ordinance actually allows for four cultivator permits and eight dispensary permits. Oakland North regrets the error.


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