Cannabis gets a ‘Wynn’, at least for a discussion, in Visalia

Councilmember Liz Wynn casts somewhat surprising vote to reconsider the city’s ban on all marijuana related businesses within the city limits

VISALIA – The Visalia City Council will at least discuss the idea of allowing recreational marijuana businesses within the city after a somewhat surprising vote by one of its members.

At its May 16 meeting, Councilmember Greg Collins motioned for the council to add the discussion on a future agenda. It was seconded by Vice Mayor Brian Poochigian. When the item came for a roll call vote, the councilmembers voted the same way they had less than a year ago, in a 2-2 deadlock, with Collins and Poochigian for and Mayor Steve Nelsen and Brett Taylor against. The swing vote fell to Liz Wynn, who initially didn’t vote and then later, somewhat reluctantly, decided there was no harm in having the discussion.

“Yes, I’ll vote yes,” Wynn said. “Let’s take a look at it.”

It was a shift for Wynn who, in her interview for an appointment to succeed the late Phil Cox last June, had publicly stated she would likely vote no on lifting the ban on cannabis businesses of any kind. Prior to voting, Wynn asked the Visalia Police Department to comment on how marijuana dispensaries might impact the city.

Police Chief Jason Salazar said he was unsure if dispensaries would have a net negative effect on the community’s nuisance and crime rates. He said people in the community are receiving legal deliveries of recreational marijuana from other cities but said legalization statewide has not stopped illegal activity associated with marijuana. 

“I can tell you as well that we see a lot of illicit marijuana and drug activity in our community,” Salazar said. “So there’s still a pretty heavy presence of illegal marijuana sales taking place.”

One local resident receiving legal deliveries of marijuana to her home is Marie Line Labbee. She said her daughter was diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder, a condition making it difficult to take care of herself or control her emotions, and sensory processing disorder, which makes it difficult to process new information quickly. Both were affecting her daughter’s ability to learn in school and medications prescribed by neurologists weren’t working. That’s when Labbee began researching medical marijuana after a suggestion from her pediatrician. 

“The products that worked for her and within a month she was catching up in school, she was able to dress herself, brush her teeth, wash herself, basic things that she wasn’t able to do before.”

Emmanuel Soto, who is running to represent District 4 on city council this fall, said he was in favor of dispensaries for the positive effect the funding could have on the community.

“I don’t see why the city of Visalia can’t benefit from something like this through taxation and it could be very beneficial to the community,” Soto said. 

The city council unanimously voted to ban all commercial cultivation, manufacturing and retail sales of recreational marijuana in August 2017, less than a year after it was legalized by the passage of Proposition 64. The ban doesn’t mean people in town can’t use or grow their own recreational marijuana. In fact, Collins said Visalia is one of the largest markets for deliveries since dispensaries are not allowed within the city. The longer Visalia waits, the less chance it will have to re-establish that market. On April 5, Tulare became the latest city to approve recreational marijuana dispensaries. Exeter amended its ordinance on May 10 allowing a medical marijuana office to open, and possibly open the door to other types of marijuana businesses, such as cultivators, manufacturers and processors. That leaves Visalia and Dinuba as the only cities in Tulare County without all out bans on cannabusiness.

Collins brought the issue back to the council on May 2 when he pointed out surrounding cities have dispensaries operating in their town and are generating funds for public safety, recreation and roads. 

Farmersville has three dispensaries, Woodlake has two and Lindsay has one. Woodlake has also issued five permits for cultivators and manufacturers and two permits for distributors, who deliver anywhere between Fresno and Bakersfield including Visalia. Woodlake’s tax on recreational marijuana generates between $600,000 and $700,000 per year. Under its voter approved tax measure, Woodlake must spend the funds on parks and recreation, public safety and street improvements. Since 2017, Woodlake has used the money to make improvements to every city park, purchase a police vehicle, install downtown street lights and sidewalks and to repair roads.

Farmersville’s marijuana tax generates about $1.5 million per year and its revenue can be spent on any general fund item. The city is planning on using the money to fund over $1 million in projects in the 2022-23 fiscal year including accessible sidewalks, replacing two police vehicles, developing new playing fields and adding bleachers to its sports park.

“Here’s some opportunity to generate some additional funds for the city and be consistent with all our neighbors,” Collins said.

No date has been set for the discussion to appear on a future meeting agenda.

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