Whittier leaders considered Tuesday reversing the city’s ban on medical marijuana dispensaries; but much to the dismay of a dozen pro-cannabis residents who stayed until 11 p.m. for the discussion, the City Council decided to nix the subject.
“We are no longer living in a time of reefer madness but in a time of science, technology and statewide legal cannabis,” resident Christine Singer-Luna said in championing change.
Officially, what the council did was to “receive and file” the report presented by Whittier’s director of community development, Conal McNamara. It offered several tacks the council could take, including recommendations for permitting and regulating medical marijuana dispensaries.
The council members’ action essentially means they acknowledged the report but may not be taking further action.
Last year, city leaders banned recreational pot dispensaries and the public’s ability to grow marijuana plants in Whittier. The vote was in response to the passage of Proposition 64 in 2016, the state initiative that legalized the adult possession, cultivation and sale of marijuana in California.
After last year’s ban, the council asked city staff to bring back information about legalizing medical marijuana dispensaries. McNamara’s report was in response to the request.
Council members said the report fell short in providing enough facts about medical marijuana.
“What the conversation needed to be is that if we want to explore the idea of medical marijuana, what are the pros, what are the cons, what is the research, what data is out there, what scientific studies have taken place,” Mayor Pro Tem Josué Alvarado said.
Council members Cathy Warner, Fernando Dutra and Mayor Joe Vinatieri were adamant: They do not support the legalization of medical marijuana.
“From my perspective, is a medical marijuana dispensary going to add a benefit to increase the standard of living for the city of Whittier, for my city? I just don’t see where it will,” Dutra said.
Warner and Vinatieri’s opposition are rooted in the fact that both recreational and medical marijuana are illegal under federal law.
“The bottom line is that (marijuana) is illegal — whether or not the U.S. Attorney General is implementing that law, to me, is not part of the equation,” Warner said. “Article 6 of the Constitution further states that federal law trumps state law, so from that perspective, I don’t support having a medical marijuana dispensary in our city.”
Alvarado was the only council member voicing support for the change. He has received many emails from Whittier residents who shared positive stories of using medical marijuana to cope with pain, he said. He believes a dispensary will benefit the many residents who have medical conditions.
“Whittier needs to look at this from a humane perspective and really stop treating this like a drug trafficking thing,” Alvarado said. “There are people out here who medically need this to survive and to be be comfortable.”
He added: “When you have someone in their 70s or are 75 asking someone of my age to help them, I’m going to do what I can.”
Councilman Henry Bouchot would prefer city staff to provide a more nuanced report, with the pros and cons of medical marijuana, before he can take a stance.
From 2010 to 2012, Whittier was home to one legal medical marijuana dispensary. Called Whittier Hope Collective, it closed down after the U.S. Department of Justice threatened its operators and landlords with federal prosecution.
Dutra, who was part of the vote that approved the dispensary in 2009, said there were problems with the source the dispensary relied on for its marijuana.
“We tried it and guess what, it didn’t work,” Dutra said. “So there are other issues than just allowing medical marijuana dispensaries being given applications or authorization to proceed than what you see on the surface.”
Singer-Luna said Whittier residents are forced to travel to Orange County or West Los Angeles for cannabis products. She’s personally visited dispensaries near and as far away as San Francisco and Alaska.
“Let me tell you, I did not feel unsafe in any of those places. There are armed security guards, there are security cameras, it is totally legal. There is no stigma,” she said. “The only stigma is here in Whittier.
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