New Fullerton City Council Cancels Plan for Retail Cannabis

New Fullerton City Council Cancels Plan for Retail Cannabis
A view of City Hall in Fullerton, Calif., on Nov. 17, 2020. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
Chris Karr

Retail cannabis is no longer coming to Fullerton, California.

The Fullerton City Council voted 3-2 to rescind a previously passed measure at its Feb. 16 meeting, after citizens spoke up in favor of repealing the ordinance that would have permitted commercial cannabis sales within city limits.

Mayor Bruce Whitaker told The Epoch Times he felt relieved, adding “the process was flawed from the beginning.”

“It was pushed a little bit too fast for the public,” Whitaker said. “In the end, it’s about government by consent, and I believe the prior council really didn’t listen to the public that much.”

The controversial commercial cannabis ordinance was originally adopted Nov. 17, 2020, with support from councilmembers Ahmad Zahra, Jesus Silva, and then-Mayor Pro Tem Jan Flory. But the composition of the council changed following the November election, with a majority now against supporting the ordinance as written, due mainly to outcry from residents.

Whitaker, newly elected Mayor Pro Tem Nick Dunlap, and Councilmember Fred Jung took issue with the construction of the ordinance and voted against it on Feb. 16, noting adamant opposition among their constituents, while councilmembers Silva and Zahra continued to support the measure.

“The ordinance itself, to me, was flawed,” Jung told The Epoch Times. “It didn’t have a residential buffer, which I found to be a nonstarter.”

Jung added that the former council failed to engage the community through meaningful outreach efforts, so residents couldn’t voice their concerns. “They just had basically what’s tantamount to study sessions, where they'd lecture the community on how good all of this is,” he said.

Zahra, who offered the final comment before the vote, said the intent of the ordinance was to ensure public safety by controlling a growing industry.

“This is not about bringing cannabis into the city, this is about trying to regulate it, just like any other substance that is being sold,” he said. “You create regulations to provide public safety for the consumers.”

But Dunlap called the measure “pretty shameful,” and told The Epoch Times it was surprising that the former council “couldn’t figure out a better way to put something together and bring something forward.”

Added Whitaker: “I felt as though [the ordinance] was being pushed, basically; implemented above [residents’] protests and above their concerns about it. And there was very little on the way of compromise.”

Residents Say No

The Feb. 16 meeting resounded with pushback from Fullerton citizens, which has been a recurrent theme whenever the topic of retail cannabis arises. In January, the council postponed the measure’s implementation due to public outcry.

Nearly 50 people offered public comments, either in-person or via Zoom. Over 40 of those citizens—which included parents, educators, business owners, community leaders, a pastor, a teenager, and a young boy—supported repealing the ordinance.

“I feel very frustrated and sad because we have spoken so much and it seems like we’re not being heard,” said one resident in Spanish, through a translator. The resident then implored the council to “make a decision that is appropriate for the community.”

Christy Sims, a 40-year resident, presented a list of signatures to the council. “I have in my hand here 869 very precious items. Please take to heart these 869 people who said, ‘Please don’t bring cannabis to our community,’” she said, adding that the signatures were gathered from folks throughout the entire city—not just one neighborhood.

“Fullerton is a very unique city, and I'd like to keep it that way,” said Maureen, a Fullerton resident and former D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) instructor. “I think the primary motivation for this is financial. … I hope that our citizens, and our families, and our children in this community take precedence over an unknown amount of money we might make.”

Another resident brought the council five copies of a Newsweek opinion article from 2015 that documented the unexpected side effects of legalizing weed in Denver, Boulder, and De Beque, Colorado. The impacts included an increase in homelessness, drug-related school expulsions, and emergency room visits.

Legal Versus Illegal

Councilmember Silva, who voted in favor of the ordinance in November, argued that allowing retail cannabis would help shut down illegal operations in the city. He pointed to nearby Santa Ana and Bellflower as examples.

“That’s exactly why we put this ordinance [in place]: to keep some of these illegal ones out of the communities of color,” he said. “This is why, when we voted on that ordinance, it was to put the dispensaries throughout the city, not just concentrated in the south [part of Fullerton].”

But Dunlap questioned Silva’s logic, calling it “a flawed argument.”

“The point that you’ve made … is that for some reason, dispensaries need to be spread about the city, as though it’s going to cause problems in a particular district,” said Dunlap. “If it doesn’t cause problems, and it doesn’t create issues, then why the worry about where they’re located?”

Dunlap, who served as a planning commissioner from 2016 to 2018, argued that permitting legal businesses wouldn’t necessarily solve the problem of illegal dispensaries, adding that shutting them down was time-consuming and costly.

“This idea that it’s going to somehow help with enforcement of existing bootleg dispensaries [is] nonsense,” he said.

Moving Forward

Prior to the vote, Whitaker announced, “It’s time to erase the blackboard,” adding that the cannabis issue had “taken all the oxygen out of the room, certainly for the council.”

“This item has been an obstacle to so many of the priorities that we need to deal with,” he said. “And for that reason, I think it is a good time to remove that obstacle. Perhaps, somewhere down the road, we take up the issue again, but I think we have bigger fish to fry, as they say.”

Jung also told The Epoch Times it’s time to move beyond the issue of cannabis, which has monopolized too many hours of precious time.

“There’s clear and present dangers that exist right now for our city that we have to address, and we can’t do any of that for the last two months. All we’ve been doing is dealing with this issue. So I’m glad to be done with it,” he said. “I think we are now able to spearhead a much better path for our city going forward.”

Dunlap added it was time to “get the city’s financial house in order,” saying a top priority would be the budget, which has been afflicted with a number of woes, along with improving city roads. In 2017, the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) rated them the worst in the county.

“That’s what residents here in town are really focused on and concerned with,” Dunlap said.

Chris Karr is a California-based reporter for the The Epoch Times. He has been writing for 20 years. His articles, features, reviews, interviews, and essays have been published in a variety of online periodicals.