GOLD HILL — Despite hours of testimony and threats of recall and public records requests, the City Council granted initial approval Monday to a pair of ordinances that would pave the way for the city's first medical marijuana dispensary.
With the audience at City Hall spilling out the back door for the second time in two weeks, council members approved first readings of both a business license ordinance to allow medical marijuana dispensaries and a second ordinance that would amend the city's land-use code to view dispensaries as a retail use in the downtown.
City manager Steve Dahl said some two dozen audience members spoke between 8:30 and 10 p.m., as the council heard from supporters of The Greenery, a nonprofit dispensary of medical marijuana.
Dahl said audience members discussed the importance of medical cannabis, but since The Greenery is not licensed under state law, city officials had called for enforcement of a moratorium on operating dispensaries.
The council also reviewed proposed changes to its business license ordinance that, once the one-year moratorium is lifted, would define how the city regulates dispensaries.
Resident Mike Stitt, a former council member and co-coordinator for a Phoenix community Facebook page, said Monday's meeting was more emotional than any he had witnessed in more than a decade.
Stitt said two police officers were posted during the meeting and that many in the audience were physically distressed and brought to tears by stories of how medical marijuana had helped them cope with their illnesses and the accompanying pain.
"Most of the people who testified were terminal. They were dying. One guy had had a stroke and, according to him — and he was eloquent when you could understand him — his brain had shrunk 50 percent and he couldn't even open his eyes before The Greenery started helping him," said Stitt.
"He pounded the table and said, 'Look at me. I can open one eye.' And all they could say was, 'Next, next, next ... .'"
— Buffy Pollock
If granted final approval June 2, the new ordinances would both take effect within 30 days; the business license component would also immediately reverse a yearlong moratorium adopted last month.
While a May 5 meeting focused on proximity of the new dispensary, Breeze Botanicals, to a nearby church, which is less than 500 feet away, Monday's public comment centered around opposition to dispensaries in general.
Mayor Jan Fish on a number of occasions called for audience members to calm down. Supporters spoke on the importance of access to medical cannabis and opponents threatened council members with recall and demanded the issue be put to a citizens' vote.
Early in the meeting, resident Shirley Brooks admonished the council for trying to prevent public comment on the business license ordinance and urged the council to stand by its moratorium.
"There was a council moratorium placed on this issue for a year ... so we felt like, 'Good, we had a year for the city to get its ducks in a row.' But then, all of a sudden, bam, it hit us again right away," said Brooks, who also cited concerns about the city's lack of a police force and money spent by the city helping to facilitate the dispensary.
City Manager Rick Hohnbaum said the city's expenses for legal fees and planning were "less than $500."
Gold Hill resident Joe Tate told the council that a dispensary would exacerbate the city's drug problem and deter residents and businesses from moving to a place where homeowners were "already behind the eight ball" due to minimal police protection and "massive drug problems."
"This is not about your personal choice, council," said Tate. "This is about what is best for our city. ...
"I believe if you pass this ordinance, you potentially sign a death warrant on this town. This could have serious impact upon property value and the livability of our town," Tate said.
Breeze Botanicals owner Brie Malarkey said she was pleased with the council's decision to pass both ordinances but voiced frustration over citizen fear and misinformation about medical marijuana. She also said she was concerned by council plans to assess a 5 percent tax on marijuana-related sales.
Councilwoman Donna Silva, who said she supported safe access to medical marijuana for patients, voted against the ordinances on Monday after hearing the residents' concerns. Silva suggested the 5 percent fee to help fund public safety and to curb fears that the dispensary would add to crime and drug issues in the town.
Following much of the public comment, Malarkey submitted names of supporters for her business and research from local law enforcement agencies showing a lack of police calls for dispensaries that have opened in the valley.
Malarkey said Tuesday she hoped the city would assess any sales taxes or franchise fees equitably among businesses.
"If all of the medicine being sold in Gold Hill were going to be taxed, then it wouldn't seem as much like discrimination," she said. "The reason for special taxes being put into place are usually to cover expenses so that a business doesn't put an undue burden on society. I do not feel that my patients are going to be a burden on the community.
Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.