Milpitas Councilmember Anthony Phan opened Tuesday’s early remote council session in front of a digital background of singer-songwriter — and famed cannabis user — Bob Marley. It was supposed to set the scene for what the council and community members anticipated would be a heated debate over the city’s stance on a cannabis tax measure.
That didn’t come to pass, however, as Phan pulled the plug on the item in a last-minute move.
Milpitas councilors had planned to discuss placing a cannabis tax measure on the November ballot. If passed by residents, the measure would presumably allow the city to collect tax revenue from cannabis sales, effectively allowing cannabis dispensaries to operate in the city.
Mayor Rich Tran initially brought the idea up at the council’s April 21 meeting, hoping to allow Milpitas residents to vote on the issue. The council then agreed to hear the item Tuesday.
“The cannabis issue in Milpitas is one that is not resolved. There remains divisive, unsettling discussions clearly among the Milpitas community,” Tran told The Beat. “My stance all along has been to let the Milpitas residents and voters only vote once and for all on the issue of cannabis.”
However, come Tuesday, Phan cited a lack of supporting votes from the council for a cannabis-related item, leading him to kill the proposal even before it was heard.
“The votes weren’t there,” said Phan in a follow-up interview. “I saw the way things were headed. It would have been a repeat as to what had occured when the vote came before the council the first time around.”
The city considered a similar cannabis tax item in December, 2018, which was eventually voted down during a marathon meeting. That vote permanently banned any commercial cannabis businesses in Milpitas.
The 2018 decision was controversial, as the item’s opponents held signs claiming weed businesses would worsen air quality and increase crime. They also claimed marijuana use leads to harder drugs. Proponents of the measure accused the opposition of “fear-mongering” and basing their opinions on speculation.
Phan added that there were more pressing matters on Tuesday night’s agenda which were “time sensitive,” and he wanted the council to focus on those issues instead.
“I chose to move this item in this direction in a way that would really allow for the city to move on with its business,” he said. “I thought that was the responsible thing to do.”
City staff recommended delaying the item, citing both the coronavirus pandemic and the short time before Election Day to conduct citywide polling.
The resurrection of a dispensary proposal in Milpitas has drawn contention from residents on both sides of the issue, with people issuing petitions both for and against cannabis business. Signatures for both petitions have climbed into the hundreds.
Similar tax revenue efforts have already been approved in cities such as Berkeley and Hayward. When Hayward’s city council granted permits for three cannabis dispensaries in 2018, city officials estimated $4.8 million in annual revenue within three years of the dispensaries’ opening.
According to City Clerk Mary Lavelle, dozens of resident comments were sent to the city in anticipation of Tuesday’s item, which would have almost certainly dragged the council meeting into the early morning hours if they were read.
Councilmember Karina Dominguez, the lone vote to oppose scrapping the issue, claimed the decision was “confusing” for members of the public and staff who’d already spent hours studying the possibility of legal cannabis in the city. She also asserted that residents’ public comments on the matter should have been read to ensure “transparency.”
“I know many of you feel like your voice was stripped yesterday,” Dominguez later wrote on her Facebook page. “I was the lonely [sic] vote on a 3-1-1 vote that supported hearing item 11 [the cannabis tax measure item] because I believe we should have had the conversation this community has patiently waited for and deserved.”
Phan, who was cleared of a conflict of interest from state officials regarding cannabis in 2018, said he was “disappointed” there wasn’t more support for the item. He still hopes some residents and councilmembers will see the issue through his eyes, although he admits that right now “isn’t the time.”
“When I feel that we have matured more politically on this issue, I’m happy to restart that conversation,” said Phan. “Unfortunately I think that the ultraconservatives and the far-right on the aisle on this issue prevail, at least for now.”