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El Monte legalizes recreational cannabis
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On a split vote, the El Monte City Council has decided to allow up to six recreational cannabis storefronts within city limits.
The decision came after three marathon meetings, two immediately before Thanksgiving, leading some to accuse Mayor Andre Quintero and his allies of having ‘bulldozed’ the ordinance through.
The vote was spurred by two ballot initiatives from cannabis proponents who collected more than 5,200 verified signatures for each, exceeding the 3,998 required to bring newly proposed laws to the City Council.
A woman looks through a door during a city council meeting about cannabis at El Monte City Hall on Tuesday, December 03, 2019 in El Monte, California. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)
A speaker wants the city to rethink its position on bringing in cannabis stores during a city council meeting about cannabis at El Monte City Hall on Tuesday, December 03, 2019 in El Monte, California. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)
El Monte Mayor Andre Quintero, center, listens to residents during a city council meeting about cannabis at El Monte City Hall on Tuesday, December 03, 2019 in El Monte, California. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)
A map of El Monte showing in red where all cannabis retailers would be allowed if the proposed initiative were to pass. (Courtesy city of El Monte)
After hours of public comment, the decision came in a split-second. The council had already held a first reading the night before Thanksgiving. On Tuesday, it only needed a second reading and a majority vote for the ballot initiative to be enacted.
Councilwoman Victoria Martinez-Muela called for a verbal vote, alongside the council’s typical computer-aided voting, so those who “bulldozed this particular ordinance through will be on record,” she said, accusing her colleagues of “bypassing the democratic process.”
Martinez-Muela voted against the ordinance alongside Councilwoman Jessica Ancona.
The atmosphere was tense when Quintero spoke at the end of the meeting, lauding the council’s decision. He cited the existing cannabis black market and the crime associated with it, arguing the only way to stop it was to “allow a legal market to flourish.”
“History will be the decider in all of this,” Quintero said. “I’m pretty confident that the … vast majority of the residents of our community will support what we’re doing.”
That confidence wasn’t enough for Martinez-Muela: “This should have gone to a vote by the people,” she said, echoing her comments from the past week as well as the feelings of dozens of residents from El Monte and neighboring cities.
“Today, I’m really disappointed that three people are voting to bring in marijuana to the city where my kids grew up,” El Monte resident Tina Flores said. “If you really want to serve the citizens, let us vote on it.”
Other El Monte residents claimed they were misled by the ballot initiative’s signature gatherers. Roberto Rios said he was told the initiative was to regulate five existing illegal cannabis dispensaries in El Monte — but those dispensaries don’t actually exist, he said.
“To me, this is not real,” Rios said.
Damian Martin, a lawyer for the ballot initiative proponents, refuted the allegations. Out of the three residents who said they were misled, he said after the meeting none actually signed the petition.“In order to be misled, a person needs to take an action they otherwise would not have taken,” he wrote in an email.
Like previous cannabis-related issues in the city, there was a strong showing from the Asian American community living in neighboring cities who raised public safety concerns.
Those were dismissed by resident Andy Huang, who argued legal and regulated shops are safer than their illegal counterparts.
“If there is no regulatory framework, you are supporting illegal markets,” he said. “We are currently surrounded by hundreds or thousands of illegal operators, and they need to be stopped.”
Huang said El Monte could be a model for the San Gabriel Valley, where only Pasadena and Pomona have approved recreational cannabis facilities.
The ordinance was also supported by two local union representatives, including Teamsters Local 630 President Frank Afoa, who said they supported “this initiative because we support great, middle-income jobs.”
The city had already lost jobs that offered solid pay and benefits for workers, he said, but cannabis could help fill that void.
The council ultimately approved the ordinance 3-2, with council members Jerry Velasco and Maria Morales joining Quintero. In addition to six retail cannabis storefronts, it also allows up to eight manufacturing, cultivation and distribution facilities alongside one testing facility.
Afterward, the council moved to the second initiative, which would provide a tax structure for the new businesses. It was passed 3-1, with Martinez-Muela voting against and Ancona, who had left the meeting early, absent.
Like any new tax, the council has to send it to the voters for approval. If passed, the ballot initiative signed by residents would have taxed storefronts between 2-4% of gross sales, depending on market conditions. Meanwhile, all other cannabis facilities would be taxed between 2-5%.
This may appear on the November ballot, but El Monte officials are planning a more aggressive alternative for the March ballot. If that passes, the November initiative will disappear, City Manager Alma Martinez said.
The city’s competing initiative would tax retailers between 5-9% while cultivation and manufacturing facilities would be taxed 3-6% depending on market conditions. Distribution and testing facilities will be taxed between 2-6%.
City staffers were unclear exactly how much money the residents’ ballot initiative would bring in for the cash-strapped city — which balanced its budget late this year — but a staff report says the city’s competing initiative would bring in $2.6 million in its first year.
By the fifth year, when staff expects to have awarded all of the city’s available licenses, officials say it could mean as much as $6.7 million annually.
All of that money will be earmarked for public safety projects, such as special investigations into narcotics and violent crime, as well as parks and recreation programs, including after-school activities and youth sports, according to a staff presentation.
Martin said his clients, the ballot initiative proponents, will “get behind it 100% as long as the tax rate makes reasonable sense.”
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The city has had a fraught relationship with marijuana for several years. Although the council approved cultivation and manufacturing facilities for medical cannabis, neither medicinal dispensaries nor any recreational businesses were permitted in the city. The few entrepreneurs who applied for permits in El Monte were hobbled by activists from neighboring cities who filed lawsuits, prompting the City Council to rescind the permits before the businesses could get started.
For some officials in the financially challenged city, cannabis was an unrealized cash cow.
If all goes to plan, they will have to wait to see any potential revenue until next summer, Assistant City Attorney Joaquin Vasquez said. Applications for cannabis businesses will be available in March, he said, and then they will go through a lengthy approval process.
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