Citizens, Special Interests Grapple With San Leandro’s Proposed Pot Dispensary

SAN LEANDRO CITY COUNCIL | The San Leandro city council hosted a work session for public input Tuesday night concerning the medical cannabis dispensary ordinance recently drafted by staff with a few hundred in attendance to speak on the controversial issue.

Attendees were relatively split over marijuana dispensaries with some warning of an uptick in crime if the dispensaries were to come to San Leandro, worried over potential exposure of the drug to adolescents as well as citizens driving high on marijuana. Others spoke of the drug’s medicinal benefits with one speaker speaking passionately about his mother’s illness relieved enough by marijuana to make her a bit more active again. Some were outright advocates of legalizing marijuana for both medicinal and recreational use and lambasted the war on drugs.

Rick Trullinger addresses the City Council,
Feb. 12, in San Leandro.
PHOTO/Natalia Aldana

Although a few hundred gathered at the San Leandro Senior Center about one hundred of those attendees were members of the Chinese Evangelical Heritage Baptist Church who stacked the room and flooded council members’ emails with identical messages to advocate against potential San Leandro medical cannabis dispensaries.

“We as a church reach out to teenagers to help make them realize that God, not drugs, is the answer in life. Having a medical marijuana dispensary would only encourage juvenile delinquency,” said Pastor Alan Fong of the Heritage Baptist Church. Another religious attendee shouted enthusiastically in the microphone, “I don’t need drugs to get high, I get high off of God!” The Heritage Baptist Church members clapped uproariously for the religious anti-cannabis dispensary speakers.

Other opposition speakers followed off the heels of San Leandro Police Chief, Sandra Spagnoli’s presentation that warned of ancillary criminal affects like robberies, assault and murder but pro-medical cannabis speakers cited studies, including one by the think tank RAND, that showed medical marijuana dispensaries did not induce higher crime levels and spoke of its medicinal benefits.

Although, Spagnoli had previously disputed the RAND study citing a study by the California Police Chiefs’ Association that challenged the RAND report, which the group later retracted. RAND is re-analyzing their study and will re-release their results when the new study is completed. But another study funded by the National Institutes of Health also released a study last year that said medical dispensaries did not create an uptick in neighborhood crime.

San Leandro resident Marga Lacabe, Feb. 12, 
speaking in favor of pot dispensaries.
PHOTO/Natalia Aldana

Although, despite concerned citizens and a large religious special interest out in force, another special interest was present to lobby its support for medical marijuana.

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) has been pushing for unionization of the medical marijuana industry this past year and Dan Rush, special operations manager, has been one of its leading advocates. Rush, with a graveled voice and brusque demeanor presented his argument with a common theme. “Every drug dealer in San Leandro wants you to have a ban,” said Rush. He reiterated a regular pro-marijuana argument among advocates that regulated, transparent and taxed marijuana would make it difficult for drug dealers to stay in business. He also added he is a resource in the new upcoming analysis by the RAND Corporation.

During the work session break, Rush confronted Councilmember Benny Lee to pressure the new District 4 representative to vote for the medical marijuana dispensary ordinance and lobby his unionization efforts of the burgeoning business.

The UFCW, usually a retail union, has been pushing its way into the marijuana business hoping to bolster its union’s numbers and influence in a potentially large, legal market in the near future. They backed the legalization efforts of marijuana in Colorado and have lured some medical marijuana dispensaries into its fold in Los Angeles. San Leandro’s potential dispensaries, two at most, are another potential expansion for the UFCW.

But a council still divided over the ordinance may stunt those efforts. San Leandro had drafted a ban for medical marijuana dispensaries last summer but after a court case told Los Angeles County that it could not ban medical marijuana dispensaries because it violated state law, then San Leandro’s council became antsy over potential litigation. The council changed direction and asked staff to draft an ordinance that would allow regulated dispensaries. Based on regulations enacted by Oakland and San Francisco, staff presented its draft last fall that allowed up to two dispensaries, but must remain 1,000 feet from “sensitive” areas like schools and senior centers.

Both Vice Mayor Michael Gregory and council member Jim Prola reminded people they welcome medical marijuana dispensaries to come to San Leandro. Prola, as he has done before, cited numerous studies that medical marijuana does not increase crime nor significantly raise traffic accidents. But not to be outdone in evidence citation, Lee cited his own studies derived from a web page hosted by the federal government that still classifies marijuana as a “Schedule I” illegal drug and been waging a national crackdown on medical marijuana.

Although Lee hasn’t given a straight answer if he will vote for the ordinance he has said locales don’t have the resources to deal with prescribed Schedule I drugs like the Federal or State government can but wants to see something done to grant these mechanisms. This is Lee’s first time discussing the ordinance on the council since he was officially inaugurated last month.

Councilmembers Ursula Reed, Pauline Cutter and Mayor Stephen Cassidy who regularly sat on the fence, encouraged staff to draw up an ordinance to allow dispensaries after the Los Angeles court case encouraged that council to take things slow. Another court case dealing with the legality of banning dispensaries, Riverside vs. Inland Empire Patients Health and Wellness Center, is now being brought to the California Supreme Court and all three council members want to wait for the Supreme Court’s decision.

The same council members have been weary of recent raids by the federal government of dispensaries in San Jose, Oakland and Los Angeles and do not want to attract Washington’s watchful eye to their city. But staff has said before that because of the low amount of dispensaries allowed, they would be less likely to attract a raid than Los Angeles, which boasted up to 800 dispensaries until many were raided. The raids influenced Los Angeles County to seek a dispensary ban.

Diana Souza, the most stalwart anti-medicinal cannabis dispensary member of the council, reiterated her staunch opposition to the ordinance and advocated for a ban. Souza cited a petition that had up to 600 signatures and the many emails she received in opposition to the dispensaries. Although those emails sent to the council were not from various citizens but instead mostly from the Heritage Baptist Church, as identified by The Citizen, and most were identical with only a different name attached, according to Prola and Lee. Some even were from citizens not from San Leandro.

The medical cannabis dispensary issue will return in the coming months to be discussed before both the Board of Zoning Adjustments and the Planning Commission.

EDIT:The article mistakenly referred to the case the California Supreme Court is hearing arguments on as the Los Angeles County case but instead it is Riverside.

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