Fullerton Mayor Makes Impassioned Appeal as Cannabis Dispensaries Move Forward

October 9, 2020 Updated: October 9, 2020

Mayor Jennifer Fitzgerald of Fullerton, California, was one of two city councilmembers to vote against allowing up to five cannabis retail shops in the city.

The other three councilmembers approved the introduction of an ordinance on Oct. 6 that would make Fullerton the only other city in Orange County aside from Santa Ana to allow cannabis retail. The council will vote to adopt the ordinance at the next meeting.

“One city allows retail; 33 cities don’t, and there’s a reason for that,” Fitzgerald said before voting against the ordinance.

“I’m the only one here who is raising kids,” she said. Children already get approached on the way to school by older students “who think it’s funny to see a third-grader smoke,” Fitzgerald said, as her voice broke with emotion.

“But they want to go a step further and encourage now fancy Apple-like stores in every council district in this city so that kids think it looks even more inviting. I’m certainly not going to be a part of that.”

Councilmember Ahmad Zahra, who voted in favor, responded: “You’re okay with bars. You support bars and liquor stores. You’re just giving a show.”

He said he has heard from mothers who support regulating cannabis as a way to help eliminate the black market. He said bringing in money from cannabis tax will also help fund drug-education programs. “If you want to help our kids, we need the funding [for drug-education programs]. … We need to block the access,” he said.

Since 2018, recreational cannabis use and retail has been legal statewide, though it is up to local governments to decide how to regulate it. Stanton in Orange County is also on its way to allowing dispensaries, and Costa Mesa voters will decide on the matter via a ballot measure this November.

Restrictions on Cannabis in Fullerton

The city’s community and economic development director, Matt Foulks, gave a long presentation at the meeting outlining the regulations proposed in the ordinance.

They include limits on the number of cannabis-related businesses in the city: five retail shops, five manufacturing facilities, five distribution facilities, and five indoor cultivation facilities.

The ordinance establishes an 800-foot buffer zone between all these types of facilities and schools, daycares, and various youth centers. It also mandates a 300-foot buffer between the retail locations.

The City Planning Commission had recommended on Sept. 2 a 100-foot buffer between cannabis retail and residential areas, but city staff decided not to include it in the ordinance because it would limit too greatly the available areas and lead to a heavy concentration of cannabis businesses in the south of the city.

Opponents of the ordinance, including Fitzgerald, took issue with having no buffer between residences and cannabis shops.

A committee will evaluate applications for cannabis business licenses using a merit-based points system. The applicants must provide community benefits, including drug education through non-profits or other means, as well as security measures to ensure the safety of the area around their businesses.

Debate on Benefits, Costs

Councilmember Bruce Whitaker, who was the other no-vote on the ordinance, said he read a study that showed places allowing cannabis retail saw a growth in the number of illegal dispensaries, not a decline. The illegal dispensaries outnumbered the licensed shops 7 to 1.

Foulks responded to the concern, saying that can indeed happen when a city taxes cannabis too heavily. “If they ask for too much and the costs are too high, the effect will be that the illegal market will continue to be successful.”

But, Foulks said that Santa Ana, which allows 30 dispensaries, has seen a great decrease in the number of illegal operations. He estimated Santa Ana had just under 100 illegal dispensaries prior to 2014, when it decided to permit dispensaries. Now, he said, it probably has less than five illegal ones.

He said that is, in part, due to the work of the code enforcement department, but also because the legal operators squeeze the illegal ones out of business.

Opponents to the ordinance who spoke during the public comment period said they think the city will end up spending more money on law enforcement due to problems around dispensaries, and the benefits of taxing cannabis will be used up on that.

Foulkes talked about how hard it has been to shut down the illegal dispensaries. The last one the city shut down took nine months, though usually it takes six months or so. The city has had up to six illegal dispensaries operating at one time.

It takes a long time to shut them down because of the legal process, Foulkes explained, including issuing citations, getting warrants for abatement, and more.

“We know about them very, very quickly after they open, and while we are going through what we would call due process to close them down, they are very often continuing to sell,” he said.

Public Opinion in Fullerton

Foulkes brought up statistics showing how the people of Fullerton feel about cannabis.

He showed how Fullerton voted on the statewide Proposition 64 that went into effect in 2018, which legalized the sale and use of recreational marijuana in California.

Foulkes showed a map of how people voted on Prop. 64 in different parts of Fullerton. The city was divided almost perfectly in half on the issue.

Those who voted yes, 51.47 percent, were concentrated in the south part of the city. Those who voted no, 48.53 percent, were concentrated in the north of the city.

Only about 1,500 votes separated the yes and no sides, Foulkes said.

He noted that approving the current ordinance will protect the city’s right to regulate cannabis retail itself if the state decides to make decisions regarding, for example, how much buffer room to put between shops and schools or the volume of dispensaries. “Adopting local regulations insulates us should the state adopt regulations,” he said.

In a poll conducted by the city in November 2019, a larger majority of residents either “somewhat agreed” or “strongly agreed” that it would be good to have retail access to cannabis for adults in the city.

There was a total support in each district, with Council District 4 giving the most support, at 80 percent, and District 5 showing the least, at 63 percent.

However, Foulkes noted that at the last two public meetings on the issue, one on July 30 and the other on Aug. 13, about 95 percent of the attendees (whether in-person or virtual) strongly opposed allowing any type of cannabis business.

Their concerns included youth access, crime around retail locations, public health impacts (including second-hand smoke), and that cannabis businesses would be too concentrated in the south of the city.

At the Oct. 6 meeting, the majority of the approximately 80 public comments (including both online and in-person) were opposed.

One man gave an impassioned speech about the impacts on youth. “I’ve been working with a lot of kids with gang members. It’s hard for me to see you guys going to be approving the dispensaries. … I’ve been watching kids using marijuana at six years old.

“I’m opposed to drugs. Approving drugs, you’re going to be destroying families,” he said.

A woman who spoke later in support of the ordinance said she understands the concerns, but she thinks the regulations in the ordinance will make the dispensaries responsible businesses without negative impacts.

“A lot of these issues I’m hearing from the community … I think there’s a lot of miseducation, especially in communities where you’ve seen illegal dispensaries before,” she said.

The Spanish-speaking commenters were especially opposed to the ordinance, but also expressed frustration that Spanish translations were not available for them to understand more about it. The online Spanish comments focused heavily on not wanting the dispensaries near schools.

Before giving his no-vote, Whitaker said, “This really is about tax revenue and it’s about profit.” He said there’s no need for cannabis retail in Fullerton. “I think it’s wrong for us in a top-down fashion to impose that … on people who really don’t want that presence.”

Update: This article has been updated to state that the ordinance on cannabis retail will be decided at the next Fullerton City Council meeting. The Epoch Times regrets the error.