The tenuous peace that broke out two weeks ago over a compromise medical-marijuana ordinance has gone up in smoke, as Santa Barbara City Council member Frank Hotchkiss has announced that he’s changing his vote and will push for an outright ban instead. What makes Hotchkiss’s change of heart so striking is that he sits on the Ordinance Committee that crafted the compromise language, which he voted for after exacting many tougher restrictions on how and where medical marijuana dispensaries could operate. Without Hotchkiss’s support, the proposed ordinance — all but approved two weeks ago — lacks the five-vote super-majority required for passage. Given that there aren’t five votes for the ban Hotchkiss is pursuing, the regulatory future of dispensaries remains uncertain. For the time being, the existing ordinance — approved two years ago — will hold sway even though seven council members have agreed it’s inadequate.
Now entering his sixth month on the council, Hotchkiss has alternately voted in favor of allowing as may as seven dispensaries within city limits — that’s two more than the compromise language would allow — as well as for an outright ban. On the Ordinance Committee, he emerged as a horse trader and deal maker, trading his vote of support for more stringent regulations. Since the vote two weeks ago, Hotchkiss said he was surprised to discover that the exactions he won did not win support from the anti-pot coalition, growing bigger and more passionate with each passing week. “Everybody I talked to thought it was a bad idea,” he explained. “Everybody — people trying to get off drugs, the school superintendent, the Boys and Girls Club, the Police Officers Association — everybody.”
Procedurally, Hotchkiss said he’ll ask his council colleagues to reconsider their vote from two weeks ago. As part of the prevailing majority, he is entitled to do so within certain time deadlines. Should he succeed, that opens the door for reconsideration of a ban. But should he fail to garner the four votes necessary for a reconsideration — and it’s likely he’ll only get the support of councilmembers Dale Francisco and Michael Self — then Hotchkiss can vote against final adoption of the ordinance. Either way, the compromise measure appears doomed.
Councilmember Bendy White, who served on the Ordinance Committee with Hotchkiss, expressed frustration that so much time — 20 hearings in the past two years — had been spent deliberating about medical marijuana, when so many other pressing issues were clamoring for council attention. White acknowledged that medical marijuana has elicited an unusual degree of passion and intensity. “We may not be able to do anything about the oil spilling in the Gulf; we may not be able to do anything to stop jihadists from hating us; but we can ban medical marijuana from retail distribution,” he said. “This is a tunnel into the anxiety and angst people feel about their children and their sense of safety.” While White did not support a ban, he did push for an even more restrictive compromise measure — three dispensaries allowed rather than five — that the council seemed to embrace.
Hotchkiss said he’s hoping to woo Mayor Helene Schneider into supporting a ban, but based on Schneider’s recent remarks, that’s not too likely. Schneider spent the Memorial Day weekend in Morro Bay and was struck by how little effect such bans actually have. “The weekly paper (the San Luis Obispo New Times) had ads all over the place for dispensaries and doctors who prescribe medical marijuana, and this in a place that theoretically does not allow dispensaries,” she said. Schneider has argued in the past that dispensaries address a pressing need for people dealing with medical crises.
Hotchkiss and Councilmember Francisco both said they knew nothing about rumored plans to place a ban on next November’s ballot. Francisco said he had heard talk about initiating a recall against councilmembers who supported medical marijuana dispensaries, but cautioned that such recalls are politically difficult, and that the intensity of community outrage was not yet sufficient to propel such an effort. In the meantime, the L.A. Times and USC released the results of a new statewide survey showing that 49 percent of respondents favored the statewide initiative on the November ballot that would legalize marijuana for recreational use and give city and county governments responsibility for regulating and taxing its sale. Forty-one percent opposed. Support was strongest among younger voters, males, and Democrats. But a majority of married women opposed the measure, a demographic that strategists for both sides agree will be crucial for political success come the fall.