El Centro Gives Final Approval to Cannabis Ordinance
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El Centro Council Tables Decision on Cannabis Storefront

EL CENTRO — The El Centro City Council debated if it should proceed with a proposal to authorize a commercial cannabis storefront at its meeting Dec. 17, taking testimony from supporters and opponents yet ultimately tabling the issue.

Since overturning the ban on commercial cannabis by a slim 3-2 vote in November (Council Members Jason Jackson and Cheryl Viegas-Walker opposed), the council directed the Community Development Department to formulate a draft proposal to license a retail storefront cannabis operation.

Norma Villicana, department director, explained California allows municipalities one retail permit per 12,500 population. That would let El Centro license three retail operations but her department recommended just two for now.

Public Weighs In

Deborah Ellett, director of Real Hope Center, a pregnancy counseling center and a long-time opponent of commercial cannabis, reiterated her opposition in public comment.

“I think even one business is one too many but I had hoped El Centro would start as small as possible before opening up the city to more possible difficulties,” she said.

Marty Ellett, her husband and a nurse at El Centro Regional Medical Center, asked if the intent was to legalize commercial cannabis so as to eliminate the need for outside deliveries.

Mayor Efrain Silva explained his rationale in supporting retail storefront cannabis operations was that non-storefront deliveries are occurring presently and growing.

“We have no control over those deliveries without an ordinance,” he said. “We have some deliveries taking place currently. Some deliveries are made to a residence. But others are dropping product off at a parking lot at midnight. That is not safe.”

Silva added whether the city has or does not have a legal dispensary will not affect the availability of cannabis.

“My personal perspective is with an ordinance we can control cannabis operations through storefront licenses,” he said. “A business license assures safety (of transaction), reliability (purity of content) and boosts job creation.”

But Marty Ellet argued commercial storefronts raise another problem.

“With all the regulation of dispensaries, how can they compete? How many compliance (code enforcement) officers are there available? (There are two.) … Then they’ll be overwhelmed. Seems to me it would take dedicated officers to keep up. I personally see it as a burden on police and taxpayers,” he said.

Villicana explained her department already drafted regulations to keep any cannabis storefront 1,000 feet away from public and private schools, day care and youth centers, and parks. It could add libraries and religious institutions.

She also noted a competitive 30-day application notice will be advertised for prospective candidates once an ordinance is drafted.

Lidia Angulo, an administrator for Caring Hearts, a medical transportation company, spoke in favor of allowing a retail storefront.

“Wouldn’t it be a good idea to tax cannabis by approving an ordinance?” she proposed. “Medical patients could use it for cancer and other diseases. Why not approve it now? What is there to hold it up?”

But Saul Rodriguez, a public health advocate, cautioned that the Colorado “Gold Rush” that occurred when that state along with Oregon became the first to permit commercial cannabis, the state was flooded with homeless in cities allowing/ That was because those people expected to get jobs in the industry and when the high numbers of jobs did not materialize the homeless were stranded there.

Some Council Members Hesitant

Viegas-Walker took that opportunity to appeal to the rest of the council to learn a lesson from the Denver Police Department, which maintains legalization has required increased law enforcement.

“I’m against the ordinance and always have been but if it passes let’s go about it wisely,” she said. “Let’s get input from Colorado law enforcement and legislators. Let’s move forward in an intelligent fashion.”

Jackson reminded council commercial cannabis is likely not the revenue generator some anticipate and if the city does not earn enough hiring sufficient code enforcement officers will be a non-starter.

Peter Gutierrez, founder of Quest for Fire, an online delivery service, noted approval would open all sorts of opportunities for business growth. He particularly appealed to council to not make regulation standards higher than the state since that would make it harder for entrepreneurs to enter the industry and possibly create an atmosphere for criminal enterprise.

“I think we need the opportunity to open a business like anybody else,” he said. “California is giving away grants for cannabis businesses and El Centro is losing out by not taking advantage of the opportunity. If the city approves a storefront, I could create at least five jobs. I know one thing, you’ll see me here every meeting fighting for commercial cannabis.”

Since Council Member Edgard Garcia, who previously supported a cannabis retail storefront, was absent, the remaining council members conceded if a vote were taken it would be a 2 to 2 impasse.

Jackson recommended tabling the issue until the Feb. 5 meeting (the Jan. 7 meeting is canceled) and the others agreed it would provide the Community Development Department sufficient time to develop a final ordinance.


This story is featured in the Dec 19, 2019 e-Edition.

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