Scott Huber, a candidate in the Nov. 6 Chico City Council election, visited Boulder, Colo., in early August to find out first-hand how cannabis dispensary sales have gone there. ChicoSol News Director Dave Waddell explored with Huber in this Q & A what he learned and how it might apply to Chico and Oroville.
In 2016, California voters backed state Proposition 64 that allowed cities, beginning in 2018, to authorize the sale and taxation of recreational marijuana.
ChicoSol: Tell us a little about the city you visited.
Huber: My wife and I flew to Boulder, Colo., specifically to learn how that city has managed the conversion to a cannabis-legal community. We chose to visit Boulder because of its superficial similarities to Chico. Boulder is a lot like Chico, and it isn’t. With a population of 108,000 to Chico’s 96,000 it’s slightly larger, but feels twice as big. The boulevards are wider, the buildings are larger, the lawns are greener and the affluence is palpable.
While Chico is built on the western shoulder of the Sierras, Boulder hugs the eastern flank of the Rockies. Like Chico, it’s a college town, home to the University of Colorado, which shares a reputation for being a party school, but the student/townie ratio is much higher in Boulder with 33,681 students to Chico’s 16,647. Importantly perhaps, Boulder is just a half hour from giant Denver, while Chico’s closest neighbor of any size is 90 minutes away in Sacramento.
ChicoSol: What was your most surprising discovery on the trip?
Huber: There were a few surprises: (1) It was interesting to me that the percentage of votes for legalization in Boulder was only 54 percent, while 61 percent of Chico voters approved legalization. (2) The attitude of city staff was surprising – they seemed clearly overworked, understaffed and a little bitter about the additional burden that regulation and enforcement has added to their jobs. The public affairs director for the Boulder Chamber of Commerce, on the other hand, provided a much more positive impression of the impacts on the city. (3) Odor complaints were by far the biggest problem for Boulder’s code enforcement department, primarily from indoor grows (rarely dispensaries). (4) On a positive note was how well signage was regulated – dispensaries are hard to notice, city code requires understated signs free of bright colors and neon. They are actually hard to find unless you know the address.
ChicoSol: What did you find to be the greatest benefit to the community of legalized cannabis sales?
Huber: I guess first and foremost is that the will of the majority was honored. The significant increase in tax revenue is between about three to eight times the cost of increased enforcement and regulation depending on whose numbers you’re using, leaving the balance to be used primarily for education.
ChicoSol: What were the impacts on crime and law enforcement?
Huber: The admittedly overburdened sole Marijuana Enforcement Officer could not cite hard numbers on crime, but said she had seen anecdotal evidence of an increase in cannabis specific crimes — primarily dumpster thefts, odor complaints and the occasional burglary. Smoking in public, which is against the law, has increased. She also stated that she has “noticed an increase in DUID (Driving Under the Influence of Drugs) reports related to marijuana; however, patrol officers are also more aware of marijuana as an issue since legalization, so it is difficult to determine if the increase is due to more awareness, more training or more actual DUIDs.”
ChicoSol: What were the impacts on the health of teen-agers?
Huber: Boulder staff did not know the answer to this question, but the Washington Post recently reported that following legalization, the rate of adolescent marijuana use in Colorado has fallen to its lowest level in nearly a decade.
ChicoSol: Does the Oroville City Council seem headed in the right direction with its move toward permitting dispensary sales?
Huber: My visit to Boulder and my conversations with the people there who have experienced the challenge of shifting to legalization have convinced me that the prudent way to get started is to begin on a limited basis and work out the bugs before expanding or enlarging. Assembling a diverse advisory group, made up of citizens, safety personnel, code enforcement, businesses, schools and cannabis industry representatives, and tasking the group to develop consensus around a plan is critical to the success of any legalization plan.
Boulder officials spoke reverently of the approach taken by the nearby community of Longmont, which waited and watched what Boulder experienced before allowing legal cannabis sales – then capped the number of dispensaries to four (to Boulder’s more than 100) and disallowed grows. Oroville seems to be following this plan, with an initial maximum of three dispensaries proposed. Oroville is also talking about strict odor-absorbing rules, so that the strong smell of the product is undetectable outside of the dispensary – odor complaints are Boulder’s biggest source of enforcement calls.
From what I’ve read Oroville does not yet have firm guidelines for buffers from schools, churches, parks and residences – I believe they should err on the side of caution and impose the largest practicable buffers, perhaps even creating specific zoning for cannabis businesses. As stated earlier, I think codes governing the look of dispensaries are important, so that they blend into the parts of town they are allowed in.
ChicoSol: Reading between the lines, it sounds like you favor cannabis dispensary sales in the city of Chico. Care to further define your position?
Huber: Yes, I do favor cannabis dispensary sales in Chico under certain circumstances. My belief at this time is that the best way forward would be: (1) To agendize a public discussion or town hall style meeting on the possibility of creating a Marijuana Advisory Panel to research the pros, cons and alternative ways of legalizing cannabis sales. (2) Based on the results of No. 1, task the city manager with developing criteria for the composition of the Marijuana Advisory Panel. (3) Task the resultant panel with researching best practices based on their varying backgrounds, and with coming up with a consensus plan that they can all live with. The result could go either way — either that the panel finds that the negatives outweigh the positives or that the benefits outweigh liabilities. I am open to whatever conclusion they come to. (4) Have a public meeting to discuss their findings. (5) Take the general public’s comments into account. If, after all this, it is determined that legalization is a good thing for the community, then the City Council could vote on activating a plan.
ChicoSol: Any final thoughts?
Huber: I understand that many pro-cannabis people may be frustrated by what appears to be a potentially slow process, and I understand that there are people out there waiting to be able to get their medicine locally. My response is that I am sorry that it might be a long process, but I want this decision to be one that is transparent to the whole community, where everyone has an opportunity to voice their support or opposition. Only after we’ve done that can we be confident that we tried our best to do what’s right for the whole community.
Interviewer Dave Waddell is news director at ChicoSol.