By Alfredo Santana
BELL GARDENS — Residents packed the City Council Chambers May 8 to voice their feelings about a proposed ordinance that would legalize cannabis sales in brick-and-mortar storefronts.
The draft moved forward on a 3-1 vote, with direction from Councilman Marco Barcena to attach a resolution that would streamline a portion of taxes collected from cannabis dispensaries for mental health services, recreational and community service programs and parks.
Councilwoman Maria Pulido and Mayor Pro Tem Francis De Leon Sanchez joined Barcena in favor of the measure, while Jorgel Chavez voted against it. Mayor Alejandra Cortez was absent.
A final draft ordinance will return to the City Council for a final vote after the Planning Commission weighs in on the revised document, with the caveat that residents will cast ballots on an eventual sales tax rate.
“The notion that doing the same thing that we’ve done for the past 20 years is going to give us different results, I find it very hard to believe it myself,” said Barcena after his motion was approved. “I want to find a way to benefit our community the most I can. I see a lot of potential here in the sense that we can regulate a lot of these illegal shops.”
Despite being warned that unruly behavior would result in their removal from the hall, attendants jeered and heckled speakers who addressed the four council members trying to sway their view on legal cannabis dispensaries.
Most comments leaned on the potential benefits and the impacts dispensaries would bring to local customers, safety and the city’s quality of life.
Supporters believe the city should embrace a system to legalize cannabis retailers so patients with chronic ailments are able to buy products to manage their pain.
Aida Fuentes, a resident in favor of the measure, said the ordinance would raise the bar on the quality and safety of products sold compared to the risks of purchasing cannabis from illegal vendors.
“We can help to ensure that safe products are available,” Fuentes told the council. “Currently, individuals who purchase cannabis on the black market have no way of knowing what they are getting, which can put their health at risk.
“In addition, fiscal and medical benefits can be brought to the city, including crime reduction, social justice and consumer safety.”
Others pushed back against that notion. Some argued that legal cannabis sales would exacerbate drug consumption by adolescents attending local schools and would not bring additional taxes due to high state regulations.
Bruce April, a Downey resident who said he grew up in Bell Gardens, slammed the council members for considering such an ordinance and said excessive state taxes and regulations would not let legal cannabis operators stay in the city too long.
“It’s not economically feasible and the people don’t want it,” said April to applause from others in the audience. “All you care to do is to create a situation where people who smoke all this high-grade stuff just get lazy and stupid.
“Don’t approve an ordinance, or think you are going to regulate anything, because you are not.”
Francisco Hernandez echoed April’s sentiment. He told the council members that he often witnesses adolescents on the street smoking pot, and labeled the medical cannabis approach a “lie.”
“If they want the medicine, they can get a prescription from a doctor, not from dispensaries,” Hernandez said in Spanish.
As part of the staff presentation, it was announced that the city applied for a $20 million state grant to fund the initial phase of development and issuance of permits for cannabis retailers.
According to Gustavo Romo, the city’s community development director, the state funds were created to help local governments cover staff salaries, administrative work and related costs to regulate commercial cannabis sales and storage.
“The funding aims to reduce local barriers to access an already growing market, supports the expansion of potential revenue, reduces the need for consumers to patronize the illegal operators and reduces the size of the illicit market,” Romo said in a report to the council.
Phase one of the grant is scheduled to be announced on June 20. If the City Council rejects the final draft, the application would become null and void.
Without naming it, Romo said that a neighboring Southeast Los Angeles city projected to receive between $250,000 and $450,000 in sales taxes per location, and “well exceeded that prediction.”
Romo pointed that about 44% of all state municipalities have drafted regulations to legalize commercial cannabis operations.
“One of the reasons why so many cities are doing this is because of the revenue incentive, but also because it’s coming down to the point where the cities that don’t do it may miss the boat in terms of getting into that revenue,” Romo said.
City Manager Michael O’Kelly told Barcena that cities of a similar size to Bell Gardens have reported tax revenues from $1 to $3 million, depending on the number of facilities authorized.
“Anecdotally and generally speaking, a regulated business is expected to eliminate the need for illegal businesses, because you can buy it legally,” O’Kelly said.
Currently, California charges a 15% tax on all cannabis retail sales. Following tax brackets embraced by neighboring cities, Bell Gardens would consider to add its own tax tentatively from a range of 5 to 15%.
As it stands, the draft indicates any cannabis shop should not be located within 250 feet of a similar retailer and stay at least 600 feet away from schools, parks, day care and youth centers.
It also allows the setting of such operations only in commercial or industrial zones.
If the ordinance is eventually approved, Bell Gardens would join Bellflower, Maywood, Cudahy, Commerce and Lynwood as area cities that permit retail and distribution of recreational and medical marijuana.
In Los Angeles County, only 23 of 88 cities allow some form of commercial cannabis activities that include retail, delivery, growing, manufacturing of edibles, oils or smoking products, transportation, and testing labs.
Of those 23, 20 authorize sales of recreational or medical pot.
If the proposed ordinance is approved, it would require dispensaries to comply with state regulations before obtaining business licenses.
In addition, dispensaries will need to hire licensed security guards, install lighting, odor absorbing ventilation and exhaust equipment, ban onsite consumption and to open within one year of permit issuance.
The current draft only addresses the presence of storefronts, and excludes any other cannabis activities.