Berkeley debates comprehensive cannabis regulation

Ruby Sapia/Staff

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Berkeley began the first in a number of open debates about equitable, comprehensive cannabis regulation in the city Tuesday.

At its special meeting Tuesday, Berkeley City Council debated a number of issues including potentially developing an equity program for cannabis business owners, in which formerly incarcerated individuals or their family members are given preference for cannabis licenses. The council members also discussed capping the number of Berkeley dispensaries at 32.

Mayor Jesse Arreguín stressed that Tuesday’s discussion would be just the beginning and that the goal of the session was to give the staff feedback on its recommendations.

The policies discussed came from the Planning Commission’s recommendations presented to the Council. In addition to a quota for cannabis stores in Berkeley, the Planning Commission also proposed creating a buffer distance between cannabis businesses and schools. The city would create specific zoning districts in which businesses can operate and a review process for permits.

The recommended quota of 32 cannabis retail stores in Berkeley was opposed by Berkeley Cannabis Commission member Molly Jones, who characterized the limit as “stifling innovation.” City Council members disagreed over the cap and the number of stores that should be allowed.

“We don’t have 32 candy stores in Berkeley,” said Councilmember Susan Wengraf, who expressed that the number suggested was too high.

Cannabis Commissioner Cecily Brewster drafted the equity proposals and recommended at the meeting that the city create a license structure similar to Oakland’s, which would grant preference to applicants previously convicted or cited for a crime relating to cannabis.

“To the extent that someone has demonstrated that they themselves have been personally been affected by cannabis prohibition, they would receive priority,” Brewster said.

The Cannabis Commission also suggested creating a cannabis fund that would support license candidates who have been negatively affected by “cannabis prohibition” enforcement in the past. The city revenue resulting from recreational cannabis sales taxes would be the source for the fund — the city, however, recently voted to lower this sales tax from 10 to 5 percent.

The Cannabis Commission also urged the Council to create an Office of Cannabis with at least one full-time staffer to help with the license approval and equity processes.

Responding to cannabis business owners who spoke during public comment, Councilmember Kriss Worthington laid out a path that diverged from the Planning Commission’s approach of passing comprehensive legislation at once.

Worthington expressed the need to act quickly and added that he wants to immediately implement legislation that allows Berkeley businesses to repackage cannabis products and permits Berkeley growers and dispensaries to conduct business among themselves.

“There is no question that Berkeley is going to be a center-point for cannabis,” Worthington said. “Our battle is how do we bring that, as much as organizationally possible, into a licensed, regulated system that provides health security guards and regulation that protects the consumer.”

Sophia Brown-Heidenreich covers city government. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sophiabrownh.