In spite of Proposition 64, which legalized recreational marijuana cultivation and sale in California, the plant remains controversial in some circles.
Like amongst Bishop City Council.
The question of permitting a marijuana dispensary within city limits was on the Council’s agenda Monday. The debate was lively, though no air punches were thrown.
City Council last debated the issue in 2017, after passage of Prop 64, and ultimately voted to ban marijuana dispensaries within the City of Bishop.
At the time, Council rejected a proposed ordinance, approved unanimously by the city’s planning commission, that would’ve have authorized marijuana sales in town.
Councilmember Jim Ellis brought the discussion to the table this time around, telling his fellow councilmembers that he’d been approached by people inquiring about the ban and wanted “to see where council and the public is on this.”
The discussion on Monday was just that, a discussion, with no action item or vote on the topic. Further action on the matter could be undertaken at the board’s behest.
Councilmember Karen Schwartz kicked off the conversation asking about revenue associated with legal pot sales, adding, “If the revenue is so minimal that it doesn’t make sense or it’s this huge number, then we want to consider the costs and the benefits of a dispensary.”
Mayor Laura Smith tacked on an additional question about law enforcement costs associated with keeping things fully legal.
While staff was unable to provide a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis on Monday, Bishop City Administrator Ron Phillips explained that there are currently two marijuana dispensaries in Inyo County. Those dispensaries generated just under $100,000 in tax revenue in FY 2017-18, just over $115,000 in FY 2018-19 and generated close to $320,000 in FY 2019-20.
Presently, Bishop receives none of that revenue, as the dispensaries in question, while near Bishop, are technically in the unincorporated parts of Inyo County.
Inyo voters have also approved a 12.5% tax on marijuana.
Mayor Smith was surprised by the low number of dispensaries until she was reminded that there are others within Inyo County that are on tribal lands.
Phillips also reported that he had asked Bishop Police Chief Ted Stec to inquire with his counterpart in Mammoth Lakes, Chief Al Davis, and Inyo County Sheriff Jeff Hollowell about potential enforcement costs.
Davis reportedly told Stec that they had no enforcement costs associated with the pot shops, only revenue; likewise in Inyo County, Hollowell had no costs to report along with no criminal complaints to the District Attorney’s office.
“I think our position here is to do the will of the voters,” said Councilmember Stephen Muchovej. “If you look at those ballot measures and just the results from within city limits … the majority [of people] are okay with this and they’re comfortable without the stigma that has been applied.”
Smith disagreed, noting “People within the city of Bishop were not voting for legalized marijuana shops in the City of Bishop.”
Muchovej: “But they were voting for it in the state.”
Smith: “Yes, but not in their neighborhood.”
Muchovej added that there are laws about proximity to schools and that council could also make its own determination as to where the shops would be allowed.
He also explained that proponents of marijuana dispensaries in Bishop have indicated that they are organizing in an attempt to draft a resolution and put it to the voters. All those proponents would need, Muchovej said, is 250 signatures; the city would then have to pay for a special election on the resolution. In addition, City Council would have no input on the resolution.
A special election, according to City Attorney Dean Pucci, would cost the jurisdiction between $60,000 to $100,000.
Councilmember Chris Costello cast doubt on public support in favor of dispensaries, noting that while the letters of opposition were unique and written by teachers, pastors, and school principals, many of the support letters were a form letter that only required people to sign their name.
“I’m not even sure it was sent by all those different people,” Costello said, “It might be sent by someone with a whole bunch of different email addresses.” Costello also argued that having dispensaries within walking distance of town would only make things worse.
Smith sided with Costello throughout the meeting, arguing that dispensaries would provide easier access to marijuana for youth and referencing an article published in The Sheet last year about dogs getting sick from eating human feces with marijuana in it, adding that there are areas “where I see [human waste] almost every day.”
Ellis, who had toured the Ascent facility in Mammoth, maintained, ”I want to look at the whole picture and not just put this in a box of a bunch of teenagers getting stoned.”
DeeDee Costello, the councilmember’s wife and local nurse, teacher and pastor, explained in a written comment, “The amount of patients seen for cyclic vomiting syndrome has increased … cannabis has become one of the most commonly abused drugs in the world.”
“It has a negative affect on youth’s mental and physical health,” she added.
Another commenter, Greta Thompson, wrote “Putting these outlets on main streets helps set the character of our town.”
After the form letter and the names of its signatories had been read aloud, Costello asked, “Does anybody recognize any of those names of people that live in Bishop?
Muchovej responded, “They’re voters, Chris.”
Costello: “I don’t.”
Muchovej: “There was an acupuncturist in town, there was a business owner in town … we know you know all the ministers since they sent us letters before the agenda was really out.”
Smith added, “You kind of wonder when it’s a letter like that that’s just kind of generated.”
Muchovej countered again, asking “Does it discount their sentiment in your mind?”
“If I was really passionate about something or really had something to say,” Smith responded, “you would wanna say what you wanna say.”
Costello eventually read a prepared statement, prefacing it with “I hope you guys can hear my heart in this.”
His essential argument: the cost far outweighs the benefit. “No amount of revenue stream is worth the potential negative effect in this community.” He also referenced his own struggles with marijuana, telling Council “For the 6 years I was addicted to pot, it did no good things in my life … it was by God’s grace that I was able to quit.”
“What will be your argument with a child or their parents whose life becomes impacted by addiction,” Costello asked, “just because we need more money in the city.”
Muchovej was unimpressed. “That’s very nice, Chris,” he said, “but let’s just be clear … we’re not talking about approving a dispensary for the singular purpose of money, we’re talking about the will of people.”
“I’m not convinced the majority of people who live in Bishop are for this,” Costello explained.
“To that point, how many of the pastors are outside of the city limits?” Muchovej asked. “I hear people’s concerns. In my mind a lot of the concerns that have been made border on fear mongering.”
Smith got the final word. “as far as I’m concerned, it’s a substance,” she said, “It’s a drug, it’s an altering substance, it’s not healthy for you … anything that you smoke or breathe into your lungs is not healthy for you.”
Ellis, who had asked that council discuss the issue, remained non-committal, noting “I still don’t have the pulse of the community.”
City staff will return with more information at a later date.