Like it or not, we are living in an era of legalized marijuana and we think it is high time that Napa County’s policymakers adjust to this reality.
California voters spoke loudly last year, approving Proposition 64, permitting the recreational use of marijuana for adults. This came 20 years after voters approved the medicinal use of marijuana. Napa County voters came out strongly for last fall’s legalization measure, backing it by a convincing 61-39 percent. The proposition easily carried every town and city and every supervisorial district, with approval rates ranging from just over 56 percent in American Canyon to nearly 65 percent in the First Supervisorial District.
The measure allows anyone over 21 to use marijuana and grow up to six plants for personal use. That took effect immediately after last year’s vote. The measure also legalizes commercial sale of marijuana and related products, but not until 2018, when the state must set up a system of licensing and regulating commercial growing and sales. That means as soon as seven months from now, cannabis could be available over the counter to any adult user.
The Napa Valley Register Editorial Board has spent the last five months considering this issue. We have spoken with local officials and staff, law enforcement, and legalization advocates. We have watched with interest as some of our local governments have taken tentative steps toward a more permissive attitude toward marijuana cultivation.
The strongest voices against more liberal regulation have been our law enforcement leaders, who worry about security around businesses selling marijuana products and about how to deal with drivers who are stoned. We are sympathetic to their concerns, particularly about impaired drivers, since there is no easy method for proving that a driver is too stoned, unlike the well-established tests for alcohol intoxication. But since marijuana is now legal statewide, there is little our local regulations can do to ease the new burden on police officers on the roads.
Marijuana activists, meanwhile, have made a persuasive case that Napa County is way behind the curve on medical marijuana. The five cities and towns have blocked every effort to establish a dispensary for medical marijuana and in some cases banned delivery services from providing cannabis to patients’ doors.
This has placed a burden on county residents who wish to exercise their legal right to use medical marijuana. They have to travel to dispensaries in Santa Rosa or Vallejo, which is a hardship for elderly, ill, or disabled people.
We have gotten a mix of reactions from local officials we have spoken with or followed through our news coverage. Across the county, the initial reaction to legalization was to pass bans on everything they could under Prop. 64. Slowly, however, policymakers and staff seem to be realizing that they need to do something.
Calistoga acted first, allowing up to two outdoor plants for residents (While Prop. 64 allows any resident to grow up to six plants, it is up to local governments to decide how many of those should be permitted outdoors. The rest must be indoors). The council expressed some interest in allowing a dispensary, but so far has not passed any legislation.
St. Helena is considering changes to its ordinance, perhaps lifting its ban on delivery of medical cannabis, but has shown little interest in allowing dispensaries.
Napa, meanwhile, is considering the most expansive change. Staff is working up an ordinance that could allow as many as three dispensaries in the city, depending on how the zoning works. Council members say they support the sale of marijuana for medical purposes and might eventually be willing to consider recreational sales if the medical dispensaries work out well.
We applaud these moves and hope that all the county’s jurisdictions take a serious look at their existing regulations and make reasonable accommodations to the reality of the legalization era.
At minimum, Napa County residents should be able to exercise their legal right to buy marijuana for medical purposes. There is no good reason why they should be forced to drive across county lines to do so. The state has two decades of experience on how to zone for and police medical marijuana facilities, so our cities and towns have plenty of models to draw on in coming up with reasonable regulations.
And all jurisdictions should at least be considering how to permit recreational sales as well, once the state comes up with its licensing system. Not only would such sales generate tax money, they would also allow county residents to freely exercise a right that they voted for themselves.
Whether or not we individually approve of marijuana use, or intend to use it ourselves, we should all recognize that legalization is here. We need to make sure that our laws and policies accommodate that simple fact.