On May 24, the Riverside City Attorney’s office announced that the last medical marijuana dispensary in the city has been shut down. The declaration marked the 118th of such closures since 2007, when the city council enacted a land ordinance that banned medical marijuana facilities. That ordinance, and the 2013 California Supreme Court case that upheld it, made Riverside a major holdout against medical marijuana in a state that legalized dispensaries more than 20 years ago, in 1996.
According to Deputy City Attorney Neil Okazaki, the city will continue to keep a watchful eye out for new dispensaries, whose proprietors often claim to be unaware of Riverside’s medical marijuana policies. Since May, “There have been a couple dispensaries that have opened and closed” as a result of the city’s efforts to enforce the ban, Okazaki wrote in an email to the Highlander.
But with the full implementation of California Proposition 64 coming in January 2018, Riverside’s prohibition may soon run into difficulties. The measure, which was passed in November 2016, made California the most recent of a handful of states to legalize the commercial sale and recreational adult consumption of marijuana. According to city officials, Riverside will have to begin laying out plans to adapt to marijuana’s new legal landscape.
Though the city council has made no formal deliberations regarding Proposition 64’s introduction, Councilman Mike Soubirous of Ward 3 says that the city will take more concrete steps to address the issue “by around September,” when he expects city staffers will have received more information from Sacramento on the precise regulations and licensing procedures under the new law. “Right now we’re just waiting to see what the state will say, and then the council will decide,” Soubirous said.
Councilman Mike Gardner of Ward 1 emphasizes the role that other cities will play in the council’s decisions regarding marijuana. “One thing that we would like to understand as the Riverside council is, to the extent it’s known, what are our neighboring cities doing?” If those cities decide to approve of marijuana’s presence within their boundaries, then “whatever problems come with it” will most likely spill over into Riverside, he explained. If Riverside were to reject recreational weed, “we would have no local revenue (from marijuana) to help compensate or pay for the services” — such as bolstered law enforcement — “that might come with that new use.”
Among the city’s considerations, then, is another green commodity: Money, in the form of lucrative taxes. HdL Companies, a consultant whose services the city of Riverside has retained for advising on marijuana policy, estimates that the city could accrue between $5 million and $16 million annually if it grants licenses for 10 to 18 marijuana shops and 20 to 40 growing facilities. Such funds might tempt a city that in the past has paid more than $800,000 to private legal firms to help enforce its dispensary ban. According to Okazaki, court settlements have earned back some of that money “in a six figure amount,” though he did not have access to a more specific figure.
The potential public health benefits of marijuana legalization should also be seriously considered, says UCR Professor of Psychiatry Christopher Glenn Fichtner, an expert on cannabis health research and author of “Cannabinomics,” a book on the development of marijuana policy in the U.S. Besides its potential to aid ailing patients, he says, marijuana may also help curb alcohol abuse and combat the U.S opioid crisis. According to a study Fichtner cited in a recent article, for example, the incidence of opioid overdose-related hospitalizations is lower “in the states that have passed medical marijuana laws,” he says. “I’ve become convinced — based on the data that’s out there now — that there’s a good chance that marijuana policy liberalization may be one piece, one part of the solution to the opioid crisis.”
When Proposition 64 takes full effect next year, it will meet with Riverside’s thorny history of marijuana policy. Aside from the 2007 land ordinance banning dispensaries — which is not set to be thrown out when Proposition 64 takes effect — concerns over dispensary-related crime and youth drug abuse led voters in 2015 to reject Measure A, which would have allowed about 10 dispensaries to operate in commercial zones.
But when California passed Proposition 64, a majority of Riverside voters turned out to support it. Councilmembers have various theories as to why such a shift occurred. Gardner says that voters may have balked at Measure A’s specific land-use provisions, but that Proposition 64’s being “much more generic” might have convinced some naysayers. He also believes that “more experience with other states that now allow recreational marijuana” may have contributed to the change. Councilman Jim Perry of Ward 6 takes another tack, stating previously that he suspects many voters were unaware of Proposition 64’s “commercial component.”
Whatever the answer is, Councilman Soubirous suggested, the matter of whether Riversiders’ support for statewide legalization translates to their approval of recreational weed in their own city remains an open question.