BELLFLOWER — Voters here will determine March 7 what taxes will be charged for a various marijuana operations under a proposed ordinance, but details of the law won’t be known until Jan. 23.
City Attorney Karl H. Berger told the City Council Nov. 28 that action was needed by Dec. 9 to get the tax proposals on the municipal election ballot, but details of the ordinance, first approved Oct. 10, could be delayed.
“We need to tweak the ordinance,” Mayor Pro Tem Ron Schnablegger said.
He spoke after a two-hour study session in which some residents opposed the ordinance while others suggested uses for the estimated $3 to $4 million a year in tax revenue marijuana sales could bring. Suggested uses included schools programs to warn of the danger of drugs, cracking down on adults who provide drugs to minors and beefing up law enforcement.
City Manager Jeffrey L. Stewart said public safety would be a key use of the taxes to replace a two percent utility tax approved by voters in 2012 that expires in 2018.
The proposed ordinance, which still needs a second and final reading, would allow up to 12 permits at various sites in the city for marijuana-related operations such as sales from dispensaries, cultivation, processing and delivery. Officials say that number will probably be decreased.
The proposed tax would include, for the fiscal year starting July, 1, 2017 to June 30, 2020, $15 per square foot of cultivation space, 5 percent of gross receipts for sale and a flat fee of $1,500 for delivery. The taxes would increase in subsequent years
Currently, Bellflower law allows no legal marijuana operations including those for medical marijuana, but illegal operations cost the city $50,000 or more in legal fees to shut them down. Under the proposed law, it would be easier to control such sales, Stewart said.
It is unclear how many Bellflower residents joined a majority of state voters Nov. 8 to approve Proposition 64, legalizing the recreational use of marijuana by adults, but the March 7 vote will be for local residents only.
“It will be up to the people,” Councilman Sonny Santa Ines said. “If there is no tax, there is no ordinance.”
He urged voters to carefully consider the ordinance if it is approved by the council at its Jan. 23 meeting.
Cities may ban any marijuana operation, but they cannot prevent the cultivation of a small amount for personal use by residents 21 or over in their homes, Berger saidd.
That provision took effect Nov. 9.
Stewart noted the Proposition 64 requires both a city and a state permit. Because the state will not start issuing such permits until January 2018, any permit issued by the city would still not allow a marijuana operation.
He added that even if marijuana operations are legal in California, state law could be overruled by the federal government, which officially considers marijuana a dangerous drug. Stewart noted that the new Trump administration has appointed as attorney general Sen. John Sessions of Alabama, who has opposed marijuana use.
“If the feds come in, we are closed,” Stewart said.
Mayor Dan Koops, justifying the delay in approving the ordinance, said “some questions came up in the study session which we cannot answer tonight.”
Koops said he personally “does not think marijuana should be ordered by telephone and delivered like pizza,” but the law does allow it. In fact it’s already happening, said Bellflower resident Kevin White.
White told the council he is employed by a Lakewood-based group called Universal Herbal Life, which is legally permitted to sell and deliver marijuana for medical reasons. He said he personally delivers it to about 120 residents in Bellflower and surrounding cities.
Some of his clients are disabled and can’t come to a dispensary while others just like the convenience of not driving, White added.
Bellflower Public Safety Director Joel Hockman told a reporter it is “uncertain” if there is a law against deliveries in the city or driving through it, but if there is it would be unenforceable.
Opponents of the ordinance cited concerns that it would make marijuana more available to minors and would cause traffic accidents by those using it.
But John Butts, a longtime Bellflower roofing contractor, said marijuana-impaired driving would be no worse than driving under the influence of alcohol and such a prohibition would be enforceable. Civic leader Larry Wehage said he is against the ordinance but acknowledged that law enforcement officers could be trained to detect marijuana use by drivers.
Butts, saying he spoke from personal experience, said it was not right that people should be denied use of medical marijuana to ease their pain or prolong their life.
Concerning making marijuana accessible to minors, Butts said “there will always be somebody who will purchase alcohol or cigarettes and give them to a minor” and that the law against that should be made tougher.
He also suggested legalizing marijuana would reduce the sale of it by gangs and smuggling it over the border.
The ordinance and tax are likely to become an issue in the City Council election March 7. Koops and Councilman Juan Garza are circulating petitions for re-election along with three other potential candidates while Cerritos College trustee John Paul Drayer has already filed, City Clerk Mayra Ochiqui said. The deadline to file is Dec. 9.
Drayer has been openly critical of the council and some administrators and has spoken against the marijuana law.