UNSOUND FURIES AND FURIOUS SOUNDS: If talking a thing to death were a criminal offense, we would all be behind bars. And by this measure, members of the Santa Barbara City Council would probably be eligible for death row, given how long they’ve spent attempting — with striking lack of success — to jawbone the medical marijuana conundrum into submission. To be fair, the council’s failure can’t be blamed on lack of effort. In the past year, they’ve met in various incarnations no less than 21 times to debate the matter. The time spent is a function of pot’s polarizing properties, as well as the new math of the new council’s political makeup. Any measure dealing with medical pot needs a supermajority of five votes to pass. That’s a tall order. Ask councilmembers the color of the sky, and four will tell you it’s clearly blue while the other three insist it’s teal, or perhaps cerulean.
To liken medical marijuana’s legislative impasse to giving birth, it appeared two weeks ago the mother died during labor after pushing out an arm and a leg. That’s when Councilmember Frank Hotchkiss, part of the new wave of conservatives elected last November, flipped the second of what would be his three flops. Hotchkiss announced he would vote against the very ordinance he helped craft, a much more restrictive measure limiting the total number of dispensaries to five. With Hotchkiss’s sudden change of heart — a phenomenon since dubbed by Councilmember Das Williams as “pulling a Hotchkiss” — there were no longer five votes for any ordinance allowing any dispensaries. And there weren’t five votes for a total ban either — as the growing legion of red-shirted anti-cannabis crusaders demanded. Mayor Helene Schneider and Councilmember Bendy White — who both support a limited number of pot shops — responded by calling for an emergency C-section on the corpse. They proposed putting two dueling ballot initiatives before city voters this November, one calling for an outright ban and the other calling for the five-dispensary limit. They were motivated in large measure by the certainty that Santa Barbara’s newly energized conservative cadre — lead by Councilmember Dale Francisco and strategist Jim Westby — would place either an anti-pot initiative or a recall of pro-pot councilmembers on the ballot next November. That, not coincidentally, is when the council’s next elections are scheduled to take place. The conservatives would use pot as the wedge issue to take over the council, presumably backed by the improbably named Texas developer Randall Van Wolfswinkel — who shelled out $750,000 in pocket change to secure a new council majority last November. By getting pot in front of city voters this November, as opposed to next, Schneider and White hoped to de-fang the issue for the next council race. Smart move.
This Tuesday, the potheads showing up at city hall proved better behaved and more compelling than usual. Dr. Beverly Brott testified how she personally used marijuana to help deal with the ravages of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. Without storefront dispensaries, she asked, where are sick people supposed to go in their moment of crisis? Grow their own? The Just-Say-No crowd scored points, too, pointing out how little “compassionate care” the pot-pimping docs — many of whom look like they rented their medical garb at a Halloween supply store — actually provide. For $99, these medical professionals all but guarantee they’ll issue a pot card to anybody under any pretext. Councilmember Williams — no doubt smarting from being attacked as a political stooge for the cannabis cartel and medical marijuana mafia — unloaded on the many Nuevo Prohibitionists massing in the council chambers. If he didn’t call them unscrupulous liars, obstructionists, and hysterics, he came within a few microns of doing so. Had the council passed the more restrictive ordinance first proposed way back in September 2009, Williams argued, city hall would have had the legal tools needed to shut down Hortipharm — a legal but nonconforming dispensary whose owners were just busted for alleged money laundering — as early as this March. Councilmember Michael Self, one of the new conservatives, acknowledged the new ordinance might be better than the existing one. But that, she said, was like saying rotten bananas were better than rotten meat; none were actually good, and none you would want to eat.
Procedurally and politically, the day belonged to Councilmember Francisco, who has led the anti-pot charge with great effectiveness. In the past, Francisco steadfastly argued storefront dispensaries are simply not legal and that it’s only a matter of time before the California Supreme Court says so. By his logic, enacting tougher restrictions was akin to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Francisco dismissed past efforts at crafting anything but an outright ban as a superfluous waste of time. But Tuesday, he reversed course, and offered to support a new and even tougher measure that would allow dispensaries but no more than three, if the council also agreed to place a ban initiative on the ballot. And there would be no pro-dispensary alternative. This caught Francisco’s conservative comrades, Self and Hotchkiss, off balance, and Francisco was forced to exert considerable huffage and puffage to assure them it was okay. Hotchkiss, who started the meeting saying he would not change his mind again, changed his mind. And Self decided that rotten bananas were, in fact, better than rotten meat. Although the council’s pro-dispensary bloc had the votes to prevail, they blew it. Grant House, the least compromising of all the pro-pot votes, inadvertently gave Francisco the procedural opening needed to bring his alternative to a vote first. And White — who’d always preferred a three-dispensary limit — was happy to jump ship, even though he was one of the authors of the two-initiative plan. For switching votes, White drew some hard stares from Williams, not to mention a profane text message from his campaign manager, Jeremy Lindaman, who’d helped concoct the two-initiative scheme in the first place. At the end of the day, White did not really snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. It only seemed that way. If any pot initiative goes to city voters, it will still be this November, not next year. And that had been the whole point. Given the contentious history of this issue, who’s to say that Tuesday’s vote is the last word? Who knows how many minds will change between now and next Tuesday, when the matter comes back for council action? Or how often? I’m not sure I can count that high.