Back from summer recess, city council talks housing, tobacco restrictions

Brandon Yung/Staff

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Tuesday’s Berkeley City Council meeting saw an overflowing docket after reconvening from summer recess — with items ranging from bold drug policies to items addressing the evergreen issues of housing and homelessness.

The city reined in notable ordinances, such as a move to decriminalize hallucinogenic mushrooms and ban flavored tobacco

Following Oakland’s lead, Berkeley council members passed a resolution to make enforcement of some hallucinogenic plants — including psychedelic mushrooms and ayahuasca — “the lowest law enforcement priority for the City of Berkeley,” according to the resolution. Proponents of the psychedelics argued at the meeting that the drugs should be legal, and have both spiritual and therapeutic benefits.

Further responding to a changing landscape of public health, the council also amended a citywide ban on flavored tobacco and vape products. The vote adds restrictions to the ordinance initially passed in August by prohibiting the sale of flavored tobacco products and adding minimum pack sizes and prices.

The main rationale behind the ordinance is to prevent both children and young adults from having easy access to the potentially addicting products, according to Berkeley city manager Dee Williams-Ridley. Councilmember Cheryl Davila also cited recent deaths linked to first-time vaping that are garnering nationwide attention. This ban adds Berkeley to a windfall list of other Bay Area cities that have enacted similar bans on vape products and flavored tobacco.

Attorney Beilal Chatila, who represents local Berkeley smoke shops opposing the ordinance, said the ordinance gives too short of a timeline for businesses to pivot.

“This ordinance will have the impact of completely shutting down affected businesses — some of which have existed for decades,” Chatila said in an email.

Tensions over the city’s approach to homelessness came to the forefront as discussion shifted toward resolutions aimed at increasing services. The city moved to allocate $360,000 for portable toilets to fill in the “insufficient” and permanent restroom facilities located across the city. The city council also approved a resolution to develop policies that will make charging stations available for homeless individuals with electric wheelchairs.

On the housing front, the city issued a request for developers to build affordable housing on the city-owned lot at 1281 University Avenue, with hopes that it may serve as overnight RV parking in the meantime. The council also moved to explore a first-time homeownership program for city employees and entered into a contract with a consulting company to explore rezoning the Southside.

Council members also went forward with moving bond money from the Berkeley Housing Trust Fund to the Berkeley Way Project — a $20 million project that will provide affordable housing and have capacity for homeless individuals.

Brandon Yung is the lead city government reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @brandonyung1.