At this past Tuesday night’s Milpitas City Council meeting, after listening to speakers for nearly three hours, the Council voted unanimously in favor of moving forward with a permanent ban on commercial cannabis within City limits.
The vote was 4-0. Councilmember Anthony Phan recused himself due to, in his words, “a lot of concerns from the residents and allegations of conflicts of interest”, leaving his four colleagues to make the vote.
Several hundred residents were on hand, filling Council Chambers and also City Hall’s first and second floors. The majority of them had come out to make their opposition to cannabis businesses in the City known to the Councilmembers, who were set to vote on a new zoning ordinance and an item regarding cannabis regulation. The Council was also set to give City Staff direction on a timeline and application process for cannabis business permitting.
But a week ago, Milpitas resident Jennifer Strohfus began an online petition against Milpitas cannabis shops on Change.org. It collected around 4,000 signatures while motivating residents from Milpitas — and even San Jose and Fremont — to come out and share their views. Those who signed the petition supported overturning “the City Ordinance Licensing 10 Marijuana Businesses in Milpitas.”
Previously, at an October 2 Council meeting, the Council had voted 3-2 in favor of an ordinance potentially allowing 10 cannabis shops to open in Milpitas.
“They are trying to bring a minimum of 10 pot shops to Milpitas. This is an outrage. This City is so small,” said Strohfus, who passed out anti-cannabis signs as people entered City Hall before the meeting. “We don’t want a marijuana business getting into our town and deteriorating our neighborhood, and allowing our children to have access to it so easily.”
After a majority of California voters in the November 2016 election voted in favor of Prop 64, recreational marijuana was legalized in the state. Currently, however, a temporary moratorium on specific cannabis activities exists in Milpitas, put into effect by the Council on January 17, 2017. The moratorium was set to provide the City with more time to look into different options for regulating cannabis activities, and expires on January 17, 2019.
Last February, a Cannabis Subcommittee headed by Councilmembers Anthony Phan and Bob Nuñez started contemplating how to tax, regulate, and prepare for cannabis activities in Milpitas.
After meeting for nearly two years, the subcommittee furnished recommendations in regard to cannabis businesses, among them allowing four storefront and six non-storefront retail establishments (hence the aforementioned total of 10), as well as unlimited testing labs. They also recommended buffer zones of 600 feet for all schools and 200 feet for all daycare and youth centers.
During Tuesday’s Public Hearing, some speakers expressed dissatisfaction with the buffer zones: “Think about you, your children, your son or daughter…somebody just hands them marijuana. Do you want this to happen?” one speaker asked the Council.
A group of children from PEL Learning Center of Milpitas was present with their parents. Holding signs, they each spoke words opposing cannabis into the microphone.
Parents Mal Peng and Ray Zhang have two children at Curtner Elementary School, in first and third grade. They brought their kids out not only to speak against cannabis, but to learn about the democratic process.
Ted Grish, a Milpitas resident for 42 years, felt called to the meeting because he firmly believes that cannabis shops would paint a bad picture of the Milpitas that he has known for decades: “I think it’s a horrible idea to have even one dispensary in the City. The children will be affected more than adults…This is a great City. Great police and great fire [departments], and good schools. I feel like this would detract from the greatness of Milpitas.”
Grish warned the Council that if any of them voted in favor of moving forward with commercial cannabis, he would be the first in line to sign in favor of a recall.
Throughout the meeting, crowd members who had shown up in opposition to cannabis spoke out of turn, creating disruptions. One woman who attempted to circumvent the rules by getting up to speak at the podium a second time was told by Mayor Rich Tran that everyone was allowed to come up only once. The woman became hostile to the point where police officers were summoned and apprehended her.
Pamela Epstein, CEO and managing partner of Green Wise Companies (Green Wise Legal and Green Wise Consulting) was one of the few who came out to speak in support of cannabis. She has served as a Special City Attorney for the City of Hollister, and works to help cities understand the complexities and competing interests at play in regard to cannabis.
“There’s empirical data to show that where you have regulated cannabis, you have an increase in safety, a decrease in crime, and an increase in property values,” Epstein explained.
She also spoke to the value of regulation, along with the value of people having access to cannabis. Epstein has used cannabis to help her with debilitating migraine headaches, and credits it with allowing her to continue with her job and career:
“One of the things I’ve seen here tonight that is most upsetting is that people are viciously attacking Councilmembers who would vote to regulate. The silent majority thought they did not need to show up because they’ve already voted for Prop 64, and the regulators now are doing exactly what voters have asked them to do,” said Epstein. “And it’s unfair to say to a Councilmember who deserves respect…somebody who handles multiple issues…you might not believe in all they do, but they deserve deference. And they don’t deserve to be threatened over one issue, that we’re going to recall them if they don’t vote a certain way.”
Will Leffler, 17, also came out in support of regulating commercial cannabis. “I support pot shops here in Milpitas, not because I participate in the drug myself,” said Leffler, “but because I believe it will make it harder for high school students to obtain the drug with the decline in the market for legal means of getting it.”
After over 100 citizens offered public comments, Councilmember Nuñez mentioned that he had never seen so many people come out to speak on a given agenda item, and how important it was to hear everybody’s voices.
Some of the speakers had expressed discontent over the lack of outreach on the City’s part, although the City had previously conducted a couple of community meetings, as well as posted information about ongoing Cannabis Subcommittee meetings on its website.
“We need to find a way to better inform the community when we are dealing with issues this large,” Councilmember Nuñez noted.
Vice Mayor Marsha Grilli spoke to the fact that many of the speakers made it sound as if the evening’s vote might rid Milpitas of cannabis completely:
“When we’re talking about a ban, I think the community is confused by the fact that a ban isn’t going to stop marijuana from being in this community,” Grilli said. “Proposition 64 did pass and it did pass in Milpitas, so marijuana is legal. So we can put a ban on selling and licensing, but we’re not banning marijuana from the community. Because it is legal here. And as far as schools go, it’s been in the schools for a long time, long before Prop 64 passed.”
Mayor Rich Tran ultimately described the long effort to bring cannabis businesses to Milpitas as a “great fumble.”
“I think when the topic of cannabis was first introduced here almost two years ago, I said from the very beginning, there’s two sides to the argument, and the decision for dispensaries should go to a vote, similarly to what the City of Campbell did,” said Mayor Tran. “Where we let the residents decide, because it is a divisive issue.”
At an August 7, 2018, Council meeting, a lack of votes among Milpitas Councilmembers prevented a Cannabis Tax Measure from being put on the ballot, which prevented Milpitas voters from having a chance to weigh in on the issue.
When, after some build-up, Tran said at Tuesday night’s meeting that he supported a permanent ban, the many attendees opposed to cannabis broke out into applause. But Tran was quick to add, “For any proponent of cannabis in the City of Milpitas, I encourage you to work on a special election, because I do believe in freedom and I do believe in what people do in the privacy of their own homes. I respect cannabis for those that do decide with their freedom to use it.”
The 4-0 Council vote was then made.
In the days to come, a special Planning Commission meeting will be called, so that the Commision can weigh in on the City’s new direction. In a press release that went out on Wednesday, the City wrote that “subsequent to the Planning Commission’s review, the City Council could consider proposed regulations at their December 18, 2018 and January 15, 2019 meetings.”
(Note: This article was edited lightly after publication to include details of a cannabis opponent’s arrest at the event.)