Faced with a $4 million budget deficit and cuts to city staff and services, several city council members have revived the idea of opening marijuana dispensaries in Petaluma. A ban on pot clubs—where people with medical marijuana cards can legally purchase the drug—went into effect in 2007, after then-Police Chief Steve Hood recommended Petaluma prevent dispensaries from opening in the city, citing increased police phone calls and crimes.
The idea was raised by council members Tiffany Renee and Teresa Barrett at last weekend’s goal setting session, and is supported by Councilman Gabe Kearney, appointed in March.
“We have a lot of vacant commercial space in town…and that’s sales revenue that could come in pretty quickly,” said Kearney in a sit down interview with Petaluma Patch on Thursday.
Kearney said an estimated $2 million in sales tax could be raised from pot clubs, making it a higher earner than Auto Row, the biggest generator of sales tax revenues in Petaluma.
He said the dispensaries could be located north of town or on Lakeville Highway, away from schools, churches and residences, as required by law.
“There is a strong interest in it. People don’t buy vaporizers for their cigarette smoke at the Mighty Quinn,” he said, referring to the head shop on Western Avenue and Petaluma Boulevard. “They just don’t.”
But Councilman Mike Harris, who voted in favor of the ban on pot clubs in 2007, said lifting the ban on pot dispensaries in Petaluma could lead to higher public safety costs and could negate any possible incremental increase from tax proceeds.
“We would need the public safety groups to do a full analysis of this idea before moving forward,” Harris said.
Robert Jacob, executive director of Peace in Medicine, a Sebastopol-based pot club, said the idea that dispensaries are a magnet for crime is a myth and said studies have shown that medical marijuana clubs reduce crime by eliminating the need for users to buy from dealers on the street.
“We are sending senior citizens to an abandoned part of town to buy it off of some guy they don’t know,” Jacob said, adding that pot dispensaries are required by law to have security features and often have closed circuit cameras, full time security personnel and shatter proof windows and multiple lock entryways.
“There are more 7-Elevens robbed than dispensaries every day,” he said.
However, dispensaries need to be closely regulated by cities to make sure they are running a safe operation, Jacob said.
The estimate of $2 million in sales revenue is based on two dispensaries with total gross sales of $20 million, said Tiffany Renee, citing information from the marijuana dispensing industry. It does not include a separate 5 percent tax that could be added on any marijuana purchases in the city, but which would have to be approved by voters.
“My concern is on the impacts to our youth… that something that is used for medical purposes be abused for recreational use,” Renee said, adding that she would want a portion of the revenue raised by pot clubs to fund school resource officers, gang outreach educators and other youth programs.
“We already have all the impacts of drug abuse and no way to deal with them, so having some way to deal with that is an important gesture to the taxpayers who would be voting for this measure,” she said.
A cursory survey of Petaluma residents showed many don’t have a problem with pot clubs, so long as they are not located downtown.
“I don’t want people coming into Petaluma just for that,” said Rowena Klar, 48, adding that she would "fine" with a dispensary as long as it wasn't near her home or the city center. “I have a family I’m raising.”
Becky Bradley, a 61-year-old hair stylist said that she supported pot clubs because they helped people suffering from glaucoma, cancer and other ailments. “My grandmother smoked it when she was sick,” she said, adding that dispensaries were no more dangerous than bars. “Actually, I view pot as the lesser of two evils.”
Correction: In the original version, the story incorrectly said that marijuana dispensaries in Petaluma could raise more money than Auto Zone. The writer meant Auto Row and regrets the error.