Dozens of Garden Grove residents turned out for a public meeting Tuesday to oppose mayor Bao Nguyen's proposal to rescind the city's ban on medical marijuana dispensaries, citing concerns about increased marijuana use in local schools and neighborhood problems caused by existing illegal dispensaries.
The meeting comes after the City Council voted at a meeting in March to create a task force to study the issue and direct staff to draft an ordinance, which would need to be approved by voters, to tax and regulate pot dispensaries.
But the majority of residents who turned out Tuesday, and in essence, told the mayor: "we're not interested."
"The problem is we don't have enough police to regulate what's going on right now. I think you're putting the cart before the horse," said Robert Dalton, a traffic commissioner and former city police officer. "How much money are you really going to get to put law enforcement in place [compared to] what you could get in problems?"
Although Garden Grove instituted a dispensary ban in 2008, the number of dispensaries continued to grow to more than 60 storefronts in 2013, prompting the city to issue fines of $1,000 a day for dispensaries that failed to close. Since then, the number of storefronts has dropped to 26.
Nguyen cites the proliferation of illegal dispensaries as the primary reason why they should be legalized and then regulated.
"They pop up any place, any time. Sometimes when they're shut down, they pop up in the same day, after their assets and cash have been seized. Or they move to another location," said Nguyen. "When we don't have local regulation, it's very problematic."
Nguyen is pushing for the city to adopt a regulatory scheme similar to the city of Santa Ana, where dispensaries can operate in specific industrial zones away from schools and are taxed in order to fund additional police to combat illegal dispensaries.
Enforcing medical marijuana bans has proven difficult, and expensive, for other Orange County cities. In Anaheim, officials have gone so far as to shut off the water and electricity on several operations after heavy fines and raids failed to deter them.
Other cities have also pursued court injunctions against dispensary operators and landlords who rent space to illegal dispensaries.
In Garden Grove, the police department has conducted periodic raids on dispensaries but has not received the go-ahead from the City Council to pursue court injunctions, which can cost upwards of $20,000 per injunction, according to city attorney Omar Sandoval.
"To say the ban is a complete failure isn't the right thing - we've been using it to serve search warrants and have seized over $100,000 in cash and 8,000 pounds of marijuana," said Police Chief Todd Elgin. "Because of the ban, we've been able to keep [the number of dispensaries] to 26."
Elgin said he's concerned about nuisance complaints from businesses and property owners due to dispensary activities dispensaries; as well as increased crime and increased crime as pot shops are often the target of armed robberies.
He noted that edibles have also posed a problem in local schools, where marijuana infused candy and baked goods have made it difficult for school officials to detect its use.
"We've seen a huge increase at the junior high and high school level, and we are concerned that it might leak into the elementary school level," Elgin said.
A number of parents and local educators also spoke against regulation, citing similar concerns. "Of the students caught with drugs, ninety percent have been marijuana," said Garden Grove Unified School District trustee Teri Rocco.
Dan Gleason, a member of the Garden Grove Drug Free Coalition, said legalization would only exacerbate existing issues with drug and alcohol use, and cited research showing negative impacts on developing adolescents.
"Marijuana is not good for children or kids. It interferes with the development of brains, you lose IQ points," said Gleason.
A few residents questioned why instead of reconsidering the ban, the council has not devoted more resources to the police department in order to enforce it.
Those speakers included former mayor Bruce Broadwater, who pushed for the ban during his tenure.
"Marijuana is a joke. I can tell you something - the 64 dispensaries we had - it was horrible. All it was is about money," Broadwater said. "We can find a way to help the police department find officers instead of opening dispensaries."
Although Tuesday's meeting was packed with residents opposed to rescinding the ban, several medical marijuana advocates were also in attendance. At previous council meetings, other residents and business owners, including veterans and people rely on cannabis to treat medical conditions, have spoken in favor of regulation.
"The last forty hears of this drug's history proves the point that this complete wholesale ban is not working," said Stefan Borst-Consuelo, an attorney and policy adviser for the California Growers Association. "
He cited studies from states where marijuana has been legalized showing a drop in youth access. In Colorado, which legalized marijuana in 2014, state health department survey data show a slight drop in teen marijuana use since 2013.
Borst-Consuelo said advocates of regulation are also pushing for age verification and measures to prevent youth access. "The commerce associated with this drug has been present for a long time. All you're going to be doing is bringing a sense of order," he said.
The mayor's proposal also comes ahead of a statewide measure expected to appear on the November ballot to regulate and tax recreational marijuana use, called the Adult Use of Marijuana Act.
Nguyen pointed to support from Republican congressman Dana Rohrabacher, who supports declassifying marijuana as a controlled substance on a federal level and has advocated for patient access to medical marijuana.
But several speakers questioned the timing of the city's discussion, alluding to Nguyen's run for the 46th Congressional district seat.
"I started wondering why is this subject is being brought up now. And then I realized - oh, it's an election year, and the cannabis hacks are giving money," said resident George Breitigam said.
Nguyen has campaigned heavily on his support for the legalization of medical and recreational marijuana use. His congressional campaign sent a fundraising pitch on April 20, a day cannabis consumers celebrate marijuana, which included a marijuana leaf incorporated into his campaign logo.
According to campaign disclosures on the Federal Election Commission website, Nguyen received one $250 donation on January 14 from a Garden Grove based dispensary, Greenfellas Clinic.
The next public meeting on medical marijuana is scheduled for May 18.
Update: After this story was published, Nguyen's campaign refunded the $250 donation from Greenfellas Clinic. According to Nguyen's campaign manager, Simon Tran Hudes, the donation came from a volunteer at the clinic, not an employee.
"[The donation] was made from a personal credit card from that individual who happens to volunteer at the clinic - the donation was not made on behalf of the clinic or from the clinic," said Tran Hudes.
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