South Lake Tahoe City Council made some progress on an ordinance allowing commercial cannabis at a special meeting on Tuesday, March 27, despite urging from the chief of police for a ban of all recreational cannabis businesses within the city until the industry is "proven safe."
At the meeting, attendants — and even members of council — were expecting to see a draft ordinance based off recommendations from a working group comprised of 15 city and county residents on both sides of the issue. The process, however, initially appeared to take a step backward.
South Lake Tahoe Police Chief Brian Uhler, who participated in the working group meetings, presented a new "staff recommendation" that called for a ban of all commercial cannabis in the city, but allowed "commercial delivery services from outside our area."
"In South Lake Tahoe the most pressing need is access. Every other marijuana community need is of less importance than access," said Uhler in his presentation on a "Careful Change Model."
Uhler suggested that in the future one medicinal and recreational retailer and one testing facility be allowed in the city. Down the road once the city has collected data on the industry's impact on the city, said Uhler, they could consider adding additional commercial activities, like cultivation and manufacturing.
The chief's suggestions did not align with the working group's recommendations, which City Council directed staff to use for the draft ordinance at a Feb. 20 public workshop. At the time, council noted that it could still tweak aspects of the ordinance, but a "working document" would be helpful in the process.
Following the presentation, members of the working group addressed City Council with frustrations on how the process has devolved from a "positive, constructive process" to one that "exclude[s] our group and left us dismayed by a dismissive staff process."
"We understand that we all have biases," said working group member David Orr, reading from a document signed by all but one member of the group, who was out of the country at the time. "But the way staff has dismissed consideration, conversation and engagement as a result of those biases isn't just frustrating, it is damaging to the public's trust in the City Council's process."
The working group's recommendations called for a pilot program that would allow up to three cannabis retailers to open under approved development agreements. The agreements would stipulate a percentage of revenue sharing until residents vote on a tax measure.
The group also suggested permitting delivery from storefronts only, banning outdoor cultivation, allowing on-site consumption, and limiting the size of greenhouses to 5,000 square feet.
Distribution licenses would be limited, manufacturing would be restricted to not allow for on-site extraction, and microbusiness licenses — an umbrella license that covers a minimum of three cannabis related activities — wouldn't be allowed. The subcommittee noted that these topics could be revisited in the future as the industry progresses.
"This is the very first opportunity our council has had to discuss this," said Mayor Wendy David. "I take exception to the process being tossed aside when we haven't had a chance to discuss it yet."
City Council did not specifically address the suggestions put forth by Uhler, instead moving forward with discussion based off the subcommittee's recommendations.
Council agreed to use a majority of the working group's suggestions in drafting the ordinance, but said it needed further research from city staff on on-site consumption before it could make a decision.
Council also split on whether to allow microbusinesses — the license type advocated for at the meeting by South Lake Tahoe residents already working in the cannabis industry, as well as those that hope to be.
Councilmembers Brooke Laine, Jason Collin, and David supported the working group's recommendation to not allow them initially, while Austin Sass was in favor of microbusinesses and ultimately swayed Tom Davis.
"The advantage is that all of the product from extraction, to licenses for distribution, for cultivation, for testing, and retail sales would all be housed in one facility so that product doesn't need to be shipped in from out of town," said Sass. "It will provide a lot of jobs in the community, it will keep the revenue in the community, and because it will all be under one roof, I feel the enforcement comes fairly easy."
Sass was in favor of two microbusinesses located within the industrial area.
Sergio Rudin, an attorney from Burke, Williams and Sorensen filling in for City Attorney Nira Doherty, said he had enough direction from council to finish writing the draft ordinance for the April 17 council meeting.
"It might not be an ordinance ready to pass, but it's an ordinance ready for discussion," said Rudin.