Students oppose pot ordinance

A group of students from the Napa Valley Unified School District brought anti-marijuana stickers and T-shirts to the Napa City Council's discussion on the medical marijuana ordinance on Dec. 3, 2013. Chantal M. Lovell/Register

Chantal M. Lovell/Register

Medical marijuana dispensaries have effectively been banned in Napa.

More than three years after it unanimously moved to bring a dispensary to Napa, the City Council made a split decision late Tuesday night to scrap the never-implemented law.

“For the folks that have a medical reason for it, it’s not that I care less about your need,” Councilman Alfredo Pedroza said. “As policy makers, as elected officials, we have to be able to take a step back, set emotion aside and think critically about what’s before us. ... It’s understanding that our decision has serious consequences.”

Pedroza, Mayor Jill Techel and Councilwoman Juliana Inman cited concerns over increased youth access to marijuana and the risk of federal prosecution if the city moved forward with the ordinance.

Councilman Scott Sedgley, who in August voted in favor of the repeal, reversed course and joined Peter Mott in voting to keep the law. Sedgley cited Napa's support of California's 1996 proposition to legalize medical marijuana, the potential for tax revenue and the need to improve marijuana access for the city's hurting residents.

“I think it is time, we need to take a step forward,” Sedgley said. “It's not going to be the ruin of our students and our children.”

Mott said he suspects many of those in attendance had not read the ordinance, which he still believes is "state of the art." He said the ordinance would have prevented illegal youth access.

He fears repealing the ordinance will force residents to go to unsafe dispensaries outside the city.

“I appreciate those who are concerned about youth,” Mott said. “I share your concern. I have two teenage daughters. But we are going to force these transactions to happen in alleyways and to happen in apartments and to happen in parking lots. We’re going to have vehicles with lots of cash on our streets.”

Most meetings over the past two years have centered on the possibility of the city and its leaders facing civil and criminal prosecution if Napa allowed a dispensary, a direct violation of federal law. However, much of Tuesday's pleas, particularly those from the public, were more personal in nature.

“Opening a medical marijuana dispensary here in Napa would only make it easier for teenagers in Napa to get marijuana,” said 16-year-old Angela Ruiz, a Napa High junior who attended the meeting with about 10 other members of Mariposa, a Latina teen group. The students wore matching T-shirts and stickers urging people to "Use your brain, not weed."

“Most teenagers seem to say that they get it off somebody who has a cannabis card,” she continued. “It’s really sad. It would only make it easier for them to get it. As a teenager myself, it’s sad to hear people my age say they’re addicted.”

About half the speakers echoed the comments offered by Ruiz, including Napa County District Attorney Gary Lieberstein, Napa County Superintendent of Schools Barbara Nemko and Napa Police Chief Richard Melton. The majority of their comments focused on the heightened risks to youth if a dispensary opened in Napa.

Roughly as many people spoke against the repeal of the ordinance and urged the council to “remember the compassion,” in the words of one speaker, it showed in approving the ordinance three years ago. Others acknowledged the concerns of illegal youth access but said a dispensary would be more strictly regulated than pharmacies and would provide needed drugs to Napa residents.

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“We need compassion in Napa, not another fear tactic," medical marijuana user Micah Malan told the council as he wiped back tears from his cheeks. “It sounds like we might be basing some of our decisions on fear. ... Our society would not be where we are at today if we made decisions off fear.”

“Use of medicinal marijuana allows me to feel normal and be a functional member of society,” said Malan, who uses a wheelchair. “When you deal with my injury, feeling normal means the world to you.”

Inman said the city had tried to create an ordinance that would reconcile conflicting state and federal laws, but she said legal challenges in other California cities have shown deficiencies in Napa’s law.

Techel said the past three years have shown that Napa County’s 271 residents who have medical marijuana cards are able to get their drugs. She said her decision was swayed not by fear, but by law enforcement and education experts.

Pedroza said he will be open to dispensaries if the time comes when the federal law allows them and when his safety concerns over youth access have been adequately addressed.

“It’s very black and white,” he said. “If we move forward, we are violating federal law. ... I’m definitely keeping an open mind to see what changes down the line.”

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