Visalia Council can’t reach consensus on cannabis

City Council locked in a 2-2 vote as interest in Visalia grows from all sections of the industry

VISALIA – The possibility of allowing any aspect of the cannabis industry to operate within the city of Visalia has again gone up in smoke.

At its June 21 meeting, city manager Randy Groom presented a report saying the city has been approached by interested parties wanting to locate different types of cannabis related businesses within the city limits. One was a logistical company trying to find a warehousing for wholesale growers to distribute to retail shops. The company, which was not named, was looking at a 60,000 square foot property on Doe Avenue. Another was a retail dispensary interested in redeveloping an existing property, preferably in downtown. The most interesting was an agricultural waste recycling company which grinds up the hemp and cannabis stalks left over from cannabis cultivation, mixes it with other ag waste, such as sugar cane, nut shells, flower petals, to create an bioplastic, a material used to replace petroleum-based plastics in manufacturing of disposable packaging products, bottles and containers.

“There’s a broader scope of cannabis related businesses than many people are aware of,” Groom said.

Groom posed two questions to the council regarding cannabis related businesses: Do you wish to reconsider allowing them? If so, what type of business do you want to allow?

Visalia became the first city in the county to outright ban all aspects of the cannabis industry in 2017, prohibiting commercial delivery, cultivation, manufacturing, testing and dispensaries also known as collectives and cooperatives, operators, establishments and providers. But as Councilmember Brian Poochigian pointed out, people in the city are already buying it in other communities, having it delivered to their house and smoking it in their house, all of which are protected under Proposition 64, passed statewide in November 2016.

“My concern is if we don’t set up a tax structure right now the state is just going to come in and say you guys have to allow it,” Poochigian said, voicing his concerns about giving up local control to the state. He also proposed a tax structure of 8% on sales of recreational marijuana with 2% going to police, 2% to fire, 3% to emerging needs, and 1% to parks and recreation.

Councilmember Brett Taylor said none of the constituents he has spoken with are in favor of marijuana. Tobacco products, including vaping and anything related to smoking, have been a touchy subject with many after the city approved a convenience store’s application to become a smoke shop last month. Taylor voted to approve the smoke shop, despite being located just a few hundred feet from Houston Elementary, because the business was already selling liquor and cigarettes and wanted to shift more of its merchandise from alcohol to tobacco products. He said those same people were not supportive of marijuana either.

“When I was talking to all these groups and individuals, I was talking to majority of them about marijuana and with their thoughts of bringing marijuana business to Visalia and none of them were supportive of this,” Taylor said. “So I will be supporting my constituents and not be supporting any marijuana businesses in Visalia.”

Councilmember Greg Collins, who voted in favor of banning the cultivation and sale of cannabis in 2017, requested the item be placed on the June 21 agenda during the work session. He agreed with Poochigian many people were already using marijuana. In April, Collins proposed allowing dispensaries because it has become more socially acceptable and dispensaries are already operating without issues in Farmersville, Woodlake, Lindsay and Porterville, a similar ordinance has been approved in Tulare, and cultivation of cannabis is authorized in Dinuba. He suggested limiting the number in the community to two with both being located in east downtown, which is zoned for the city’s microbrewery and boutique winery district.

“It’s amazing the number of people that I bump into who take advantage of some of this material for sleeping purposes and for pain purposes,” Collins said.

The city’s public opinion survey supports Collins’ claims. In 2019, only 39% of residents said they were in favor of the city reexamining its city-imposed ban on the sale of recreational marijuana, a figure that had remained unchanged since the statewide approval of recreational marijuana in the 2016 general election, according to the city’s annual Public Opinion Survey. That changed last year when about half of people said they were in favor.

In April, Collins also noted cannabis was generating nearly $1 million annually for city budgets in communities much smaller than Visalia. Farmersville estimates cannabis will generate $1.4 million in taxes for the city in fiscal year 2021-22 and Woodlake has invested nearly $900,000 in its parks and recreation since approving cannabis for sale in the city in 2017.

“My mom used to say, ‘if your friends jump off a bridge, are you going to jump off with them?’,” Nelsen said. “And because our neighboring cities are allowing marijuana to come into their jurisdiction doesn’t mean I have to follow suit.”

Nelsen went on to cite recent medical reviews linking marijuana use to schizophrenia and domestic violence. WebMD published a review of several studies about the correlation between marijuana use and schizophrenia, a serious mental health illness often associated with losing touch with reality. The review was far from conclusive, falling short of causation, but did note using cannabis could double your odds of developing schizophrenia if it runs in your family. The domestic violence angle was inconclusive at best with the American Psychological Association saying there were too many other factors to establish a direct link.

“It took us about umpteen how many years to realize there was a correlation between cancer and smoking and the ill effects of smoking,” Nelsen said. “And we don’t have that basis right now on marijuana usage.”

Groom asked if either Nelsen or Taylor would consider any cannabis related businesses, including cultivation, processing, warehousing, testing, packaging and labeling, or delivery operations. The answer was no, leaving the council locked at a 2-2 vote. There is currently no vote to break the tie following the pasting of Phil Cox the week before. Groom said staff would stop looking into cannabis within city limits unless council directed it to do otherwise at a future date.

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