Hear our interview with Councilman Bill Baber
By Miriam Raftery
September 1, 2019 (La Mesa) – After years of battling illegal marijuana dispensaries and recently licensing the city’s first legal medicinal cannabis dispensary, La Mesa is considering an ordinance to legalize recreational adult-use sales and manufacturing.
Councilman Bill Baber and Mayor Mark Arapostathis served on a subcommittee that recently held a meeting with cannabis industry representatives. Next up, staff is preparing ordinance language for the City Council to consider on September 10th, when the public can weigh in with comments.
We sat down for an interview with Councilman Baber that originally aired on KNSJ radio. You can hear the full interview by clicking the audio link, or scroll down for details.
Baber says if the measure is approved Sept. 10 and at a second reading Sept. 24, La Mesa could see its first legal recreational cannabis sales starting as early as January 2020. The first sales of recreational marijuana would be through dispensaries already approved for medical marijuana sales, providing they have operated without significant complaints or legal issues.
“The same shop is selling the same types of products,” Baber says, noting that those businesses have already gone through the elaborate permitting process.
He cites the 2016 statewide ballot initiative legalizing adult use of recreational manufacturing – the same year that La Mesa voters authorized medicinal dispensaries. In 2018 the city passed a tax ordinance that allows taxation of both recreational and most medical marijuana. Local cities have been plagued by lawsuits over citizen-drafted initiatives that were sometimes vague on details about just where cannabis business could and could not be located.
Baber, a Republican, says he’s Libertarian in his views on cannabis. “If there’s a legal business in California…we have a duty to set up a fair, just framework,” he says, adding that neighbors should also be protected and taxes can flow back to the city with a legal framework.
Manufacturing, testing, and indoor cultivation will be limited to the city’s only industrial area on the mesa (coincidentally including High Street) away from schools and churches, though dispensaries would also be allowed in commercial areas such as along portions of University, El Cajon Blvd., Baltimore Drive and Lake Murray Blvd.
The city’s main challenge is limited land. “We have probably more businesses that want to be in La Mesa than we have space for,” he says. Currently the city has one open legal dispensary, the Grove, and around 11 others in the permit approval pipeline.
Baber believes regulation will ultimately weed out illegal and potentially dangerous pot shops.
“We spent a lot of time and money” closing illegal dispensaries, he says, “and that’s been difficult. You close one and another pops up.” Legalization will give the city the moral and legal authority to make it easier to shut down dispensaries – but also drive illegal operators away due to competition from legal operators. “They’re going to end up going to the county or Santee or El Cajon. They’ll be out of La Mesa,” he predicts, adding that the city has had “very few complaints” about its first legal dispensary.
Legalization also provides for state oversight and inspection of products for quality , potency labeling and purity. State regulation should also prevent adulterated tainted products or sale of illegal drugs. In Spring Valley, for instance, the Sheriff has regularly shut down illegal dispensaries selling methamphetamines, cocaine and other illicit drugs. Legalization also provides regulation of safety to prevent industrial accidents, such as explosions of illegal hash oil labs.
Some individuals and groups including Citizens Against Substance Abuse have objected to legalization of cannabis due to concerns over health impacts, crime, influence on young people and impaired drivers. Marijuana use has been linked to schizophrenia in some younger people and can harm a developing fetus, so pregnant women are advised against using it, for example. Concerns have also been raised over the much higher potency of some cannabis on the market today compared to in the past, including edible forms such as gummy bears and cookies, as well as smoking, vaping and liquid forms.
But Baber argues that people are buying products anyhow – but without regulation.
“The best way to get rid of the black market is to have an open market that’s regulated, taxed and that the police participate in supervising,” he says, adding, “So the cities and communities around us that say `We don’t want any cannabis dispensaries?’ You have them, they’re just illegal. So what you’re really saying to us is we’ll tolerate the illegal ones.”
One potential monkey wrench is a court ruling by the State Supreme Court which ordered San Diego to revisit its cannabis regulations due to lack of environmental review on impacts such as traffic and greenhouse gas emissions. La Mesa is closely watching the potential impacts of the case.
So how likely is it that La Mesa's Council will decide it's high time for legal adult-use recreational marijuana businesses?
Baber believes it’s likely he will have three votes to win passage of the recreational adult-use cannabis ordinance – and that the biggest challenge may lie in convincing the public to shift from buying cannabis from illegal and potentially dangerous outlets.
“I’m sure after prohibition ended in the 1930s that people were still buying from moonshiners even when it was legal to go into a bar and buy beer. It takes time to move people from the black market to the legal market, but we’ve got to start somewhere.”