Voters in Sausalito will decide if retail cannabis businesses will be allowed to operate within the city.
In a 3-2 vote, the City Council approved putting a resident-led initiative on the November 2022 ballot. The vote came amid some public concerns over youth health and the legality of language in the initiative favoring certain cannabis business owners over others.
The initiative would have conditions that would allow only one retail storefront and one delivery business to operate, said Mary Wagner, the city attorney. It would also require the business owners to live in the city and pay the city 7.5% of the net profits.
Also, the businesses would have to be located in certain commercial, industrial, waterfront or mixed-use zones; be more than 1,000 feet from any school; and operate no earlier than 7 a.m. and no later than 9 p.m.
The initiative is sponsored by resident Karen Cleary, one of the proprietors of Otter Brands, a cannabis company vying to open a brick-and-mortar storefront in the city, according to a city staff report. The petition garnered about 653 valid signatures, more than the 601 required by the county election code, Wagner said.
Because it had enough signatures, the council had to decide whether to put it on the ballot, pass an ordinance outright or put it on the ballot while directing staff to create a report detailing the initiative and how it could affect the city, said Vice Mayor Janelle Kellman.
Kellman and Mayor Jill Hoffman voted at the meeting July 27 against putting it on the ballot without more information.
“I feel like we need to at least order the report to at least understand more fully the impacts on Sausalito and articulate that if we’re not going to adopt it as an ordinance, this is why and we’re referring it to a vote of the people,” Hoffman said.
The other three councilmembers said they would rather leave it to the voters and not burden staff with extra work.
“This isn’t about that I don’t want to be informed on the issue,” said Councilmember Melissa Blaustein. “This is about that we have a variety of very pressing issues on our agenda. We’re in a climate emergency. We have disaster preparedness to address. We have a fire season.”
“This is something we’ve been talking about for three years that we were trying to have an open public process on,” she said. “Someone brought it before the voters. They’ve qualified for the ballot. Now we can let democracy speak and let the voters decide.”
Kellman, however, said the discussion was not about whether cannabis should be allowed, but about “a particular set of language that was submitted based on signatures.”
“It’s not a broader conversation around this council’s support or lack of support, wherever it might be, for cannabis,” she said.
Public comment was mixed on the issue. Some residents said they were for cannabis licenses, some said they should not be allowed over concerns about youth access and rising crime, and some questioned the legality of the initiative.
Former councilwoman Joan Cox said the last council and most residents already opened their arms to cannabis sales.
“They said yes to cannabis. They did not say yes to Otter Brand as the sole cannabis purveyor,” Cox said. “They did not say yes to having a cannabis business usurp all of the city’s power to govern and regulate and protect its businesses and residents.”
Berkeley resident Eva Chrysanthe said the initiative does not favor Black business owners or entrepreneurs who live outside Sausalito.
“I agree that that the process should should be more democratic,” Chrysanthe said. “And I am very concerned about the lack of minority representation with this company.”
Conor Johnston, the chief executive of Otter Brands, said comments about a lack of diversity are unfair because he identifies as a gay, Mexican man who is the co-owner of the first equity-based cannabis store in San Francisco. He argued that those against the measure are anti-cannabis and prohibitionists.
“For a long time, cannabis was illegal because it empowered Mexicans and because it encouraged White women and Black men to sleep together,” he said. “And I’m not making this up.”
He argued that cannabis also has been a way to criminalize anti-war activists, that it was touted as a gateway drug and that dispensaries bolstered use among teens.
“Again, study after study disproves that,” he said.
Aurash Soroosh, a Public Health Institute researcher who spoke during the meeting, raised questions about the legality of a for-profit business putting an initiative before the voters that narrows the pool of prospective candidates.
“The state Constitution prohibits an initiative measure to confer a benefit on an identified person or entity,” Soroosh said. “Second, the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution and related principles of state law requires strong justification for residency requirements to participate in government programs. There’s no justification in this context to reserve economic opportunities for locals.”
Johnston denied that the measure is a sole-source contract because he has no involvement in the delivery business.
“So the idea that Otter Brands is the only one getting a license here, if we get one of them, is not true, just right out of the gates,” he said.