Berkeley’s medical cannabis advocates issued a clear threat to the Berkeley City Council at last Tuesday night’s (April 20) regular meeting: If the council doesn’t pass Councilmember Kriss Worthington’s medical marijuana plant increase measure next week, the activists will go to the voters next November with a ballot initiative that would potentially make Berkeley the most pot-friendly city in California.
At the same meeting, the council decided to reverse the “ex parte” rule that prevents members from talking to developers or residents about pending development projects which might ultimately come before the council. In a 5-3-2 vote (Bates, Maio, Spring, Breland, Worthington aye, Hawley, Olds no, Shirek, Wozniak abstain), the council approved a recommendation that ex parte contacts should be allowed on such projects, with the provision that each council, board and commission member must document and disclose all contacts before the beginning of a public hearing.
City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque said that the draft language for the new rule could be presented for council approval within two months.
But it was the medical marijuana issue that generated the most interest at Tuesday’s meeting.
Worthington’s proposal on next week’s council agenda asks the council to adopt the Proposition 215 “Implementation Plan” which would, among other things, allow medical cannabis users in the city to increase the number of personal marijuana plants in their possession from 10 to 72. That is the same number as is currently allowed in Oakland.
Proposition 215 was the California voter-passed initiative that legalized medical marijuana use in the state.
“[But] just as a precaution we took the liberty of filing the ballot petition,” Berkeley Patients Group Director Don Duncan told about 30 demonstrators outside of Old City Hall. “If next week we can’t get the council to do what we want, we’ll do it ourselves.”
Dubbed the Patients Access To Medical Cannabis Act of 2004, the proposed ballot measure would allow licensed patients to grow as much marijuana as their doctors deemed necessary. In addition, the initiative would put the city in charge of distributing medical cannabis if the federal government ever shut down the city’s three established cannabis clubs. No other city in the state presently has such a distribution fallback guarantee. However a historic preliminary injunction Wednesday might make that a moot point.
In a first-of-its-kind case, U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel barred the U.S. Justice Department from raiding or prosecuting the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana in Santa Cruz after a 2002 raid sparked public outrage.
Though the fear of federal intervention now appears on the wane, cannabis advocates say Berkeley’s strict limits on the number of marijuana plants patients can grow remains a pressing concern.
If the November measure makes it onto the ballot and passes, Berkeley would also join Santa Cruz as the only cities in the state with no limits on the number of marijuana plants patients could grow and become the first city to guarantee the distribution of marijuana in the event of a federal crackdown on cannabis clubs.
In an interview after the council meeting, Worthington was quick to separate himself from the cannabis advocates pressuring the council to support his bill. “I had nothing to do with writing their initiative or encouraging them,” he said. “I’m doing what I think three-fourths of Berkeley thinks is a reasonable improvement.”
In 1996, 86 percent of Berkeley residents supported Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act that set the stage for medical cannabis clubs. Regulating medical cannabis, however, was reserved for cities. In 2001, the City Council voted 5-4 to limit patients to 10 plants. A counterproposal that garnered four votes would have allowed patients to grow 144 plants.
The 10 plant limit is fairly average in California, with only Santa Cruz, Oakland, and San Diego allowing significantly more plants than Berkeley. A state law passed last year (SB420) set a floor of six plants for all cities that do not set their own medical marijuana plant limit.
Ten plants is enough for a single medical marijuana user if they are grown outdoors, Duncan said. Berkeley law, however, states outdoor plants, which can grow as high as trees, must be out of view. Duncan explained that in a dense city like Berkeley, this means that nearly all plants are raised indoors.
Berkeley police don’t actively enforce the 10 plant law, but that isn’t the point, said Duncan, adding that “patients don’t want to live in fear that they are breaking the law.” Claiming that he was confident Worthington’s bill would be supported by Mayor Tom Bates and councilmembers Linda Maio and Dona Spring, Duncan urged supporters to lobby Margaret Breland and Maudelle Shirek to cast the remaining necessary votes. In 2001, Breland sided with Worthington, Spring and Maio in supporting a 144 plant limit.
Other potential November ballot initiatives also came up at Tuesday’s council meeting. The council postponed a city manager’s report on two initiatives—one that would establish a civic board to govern the removal of trees in public spaces and the other, the Angel Initiative, that would decriminalize prostitution in Berkeley and call on the state to do the same.
Elliot Cohen, author of the Berkeley Tree Act, argued that in the midst of a budget crisis, the city shouldn’t waste staff time studying the ramifications of his measure until he collected enough signatures to qualify it for the November ballot.
Robin Few, author of the Angel Initiative, feared that a negative report from the city manager could harm her efforts to collect signatures.
Despite objections from the Transportation Commission, the council voted 8-1 (Worthington, no) to approve a new flat-rate $1.50 fee for two hours of parking between 7 a.m. and 11 a.m. weekdays and 7 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Saturdays. Transportation Director Peter Hillier said transportation commissioners were concerned that the move would encourage more drivers to come into the downtown area, but would do little for pedestrians, cyclists and mass transit riders.
Last month, the council had requested the commission issue a recommendation before taking a final vote on the proposal. Hillier will prepare a report on its effectiveness after three months.
The council held off on approving the allocation of $3.88 million in 2004-2005 Federal Community Development Block Grant funds while the staff looks for more money for the Center for the Education of Infant Deaf. The Housing Advisory Commission granted the group $10,000, but Director Jill Ellis said that a $50,000 grant would enable it to utilize a separate federal grant to open an audiology suite. The suite would allow babies complete, timely diagnostic screening. Currently, Ellis said, babies with hearing problems must wait four to six months for tests and hearing aids which drastically hinder their development.