Merced planning for variety of cannabis markets

September 14, 2017

Merced leaders are charting a new course for cannabis cultivation, distribution, and sales of recreational marijuana inside the city limits.
They want it all … to a certain extent.
On Tuesday night, a joint panel (excuse the pun) of City Council members and Planning Commission members gave a show of hands that directed city staff and a paid consultant to come up with a path that will allow virtually every type of cannabis business in the city.
Merced is now the first valley town to seriously consider such a move.
“It’s an awkward discussion,” City Manager Steve Carrigan admitted. But he assured leaders: “We will be the model. We want to set the standard in California … Everybody is watching, and we understand that.”
The new direction signaled the potential end of more than two years of intense debate that revolved mostly around the acceptance of a limited number of “medical marijuana” dispensaries for those residents who are sick and suffering from chronic pain.
But an official city pot policy is not out of the weeds (excuse another pun) yet.
The modified staff proposal will have to come back before Planning and then the Council for a final decision. The mayor, another council member, and at least one commissioner expressed reluctance about expanding the scope of the discussion. Residents also will have a chance to voice concerns at upcoming meetings. Nevertheless, city staff members aim to wrap up the guidelines before the end of the year.
Here’s where the city is heading:
• 3 retail stores in “central commercial” or “general commercial” zones for residents over 21 to purchase recreational pot. Owners would have to go through a competitive application process.
• 1 specific medical marijuana dispensary located in “commercial office” or “general commercial” zones.
• Indoor industrial cultivation in the city’s industrial zones.
• Manufacturing of pot products (volatile and non-volatile) in industrial zones.
• Small distribution centers in industrial zones.
The prevailing thought on Tuesday night’s panel at City Hall was that medical marijuana revenue will be dwarfed by recreational sales — something a majority of state voters approved with Prop. 64. They said most local tax revenue and jobs will come from local retail, local cultivation and local industrial production. The state is currently shoring up regulations for a roll out (yes another pun), while cities are facing local management of the issue.
Those council members who voiced support for expanding the scope of the city’s potential cannabis market included Sheriff’s sergeant Kevin Blake, D.A. Office prosecutor Matt Serratto, nurse practitioner Jill McLeod, middle school teacher Anthony Martinez, and high school teacher Josh Pedrozo.
In the audience, gone were the ill patients who showed up more than a year ago to plead their cases for medical marijuana. Tuesday’s public comments were mostly from entrepreneurs — some visiting from outside the county who want to set up operations in Merced.
Follow the money, they urged leaders.
Councilman Michael Belluomini was visibly flabbergasted at the idea of moving away from the original goal of approving 4 medical marijuana dispensaries.
“If we want to do everything,” he said, “we need to start a process and go through the hearings. … I don't have input from the public to make that decision.”
In Merced County, 48.52 percent of voters did not go along with Prop. 64. Nearly 34,000 county residents voted “NO” on marijuana legalization.
Mayor Mike Murphy argued that a decision on recreational use would be premature, and that the city will need a revenue stream to go along with the additional strain on local law enforcement efforts.
Councilwoman Jill McLeod, on the other hand, said she would hate to see the council go back to the drawing board while “members of our community are waiting patiently.”
Raising a passionate voice, she added: “With groundbreaking decisions, you are going to have to be brave.”

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