Letters + Opinion » The Week in Weed

A Cannabis Chasm

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Community Development Director Rob Holmlund found himself navigating some strange territory last week while taking the Eureka City Council's input on the future of recreation marijuana in the city.

Instead of focusing on zoning districts and buffers, Holmlund was left to fact check one councilmember's understanding of chemical compounds in medical marijuana. He also heard calls to turn on the pot sales spigot and skirted debates on the impacts of alcohol versus cannabis.

It had all seemed simple enough. After all, the council passed medical marijuana regulations just last September.

But the ensuing council conversation — much of it centered on the retail and dispensary side of the issue — left little doubt about the recreational cannabis chasm that exists on the dais.

On one side — literally — were Councilmembers Kim Bergel and Austin Allison, who took a put-out-the-welcome-mat approach, saying they didn't see a real difference between selling alcohol and legal weed.

"I think we need to be pioneers and just go with the flow and see what happens," said Allison, who noted the potential tax revenue in tight economic times minus the destructive societal impacts associated with alcohol abuse.

Bergel joined in, saying the city needs to "join the new generation" and agreed with Allison's view that there was no need to limit the number of recreational retail outlets because the free market would balance itself out.

"We might start with plenty but that doesn't mean we're going to end up with plenty," she said.

Meanwhile, their counterparts on the opposite side of the dais — Councilmembers Heidi Messner and Marion Brady — stood firm that there were distinct differences between medical and recreational marijuana, even as Brady seemed surprised to find out that both products can, in fact, get you high.

"You're not smoking or eating or whatever recreational marijuana because you want a medical effect ... if you want a medical effect you'll get medical marijuana, which doesn't contain THC," Brady said.

"Uh, that's not true," Holmlund replied.

"No?" Brady asked, receiving a brief explanation about CBDs before she pressed on. "But the point of the medical is not to get high and the point of recreational is to experience an altered reality state."

Messner, meanwhile, left Holmlund at a bit of a loss when she posed the scenario that a person could drink alcohol without getting drunk, but questioned whether the same was true of "imbibing" marijuana in any of its forms.

"There's some pretty deep semantics," Holmlund said, briefly stumbling for a reply. "I don't know how to answer that question."

In a more central position, Councilmember Natalie Arroyo simply said she wants to see consistency between the city's medical and recreational marijuana guidelines that represent the will of the voters.

She also asked that odor control be part of personal cultivation requirements and, along with other councilmembers, asked staff to look at expanding the same buffer zones that exist for public schools to private campuses, daycares and youth centers.

Holmlund had presented a vision to establish the city as a manufacturing hub for the state while leaving commercial cultivation and sales of non-medical pot fallow inside city limits, at least until a future date.

From his perspective, he said after the meeting, manufacturing is where the money is and a look at the county's permitting list likely means a massive amount of grows are already in the region's future — more than needed for local use even if everyone took up a "cannabis habit."

But the council majority, at least, seems to have given retail sales a green light. A bit hazier is the cultivation question and what marijuana uses — medical and non-medical — to allow in service commercial zones.

With a January 2018 deadline looming, Holmlund is set to get a draft ordinance to the planning commission in August and then back to the council in September for another review. Holmlund said he's optimistic that he has a handle on the council's directions and the process will go smoothly.

"We will determine the accuracy of my understanding when we bring the ordinance to them," he said last week.

Kimberly Wear is the assistant editor and a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 441-1400, extension 323, or kim@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wear.

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