Central California

Could San Joaquin County finally be ready to allow medical marijuana?

San Joaquin County residents will most likely vote in November on a tax that could determine whether medical marijuana businesses are allowed to set up shop in unincorporated areas.

Technically, the decision by supervisors to put the tax before voters won’t be made for two weeks. But in a series of 3-2 votes dating back to last August, the county Board of Supervisors has consistently moved toward overturning the existing ban on commercial marijuana. The latest such vote took place Tuesday.

County Counsel Mark Myles told supervisors that the tax could raise about $2.8 million per year, though there is much uncertainty about that number. Most of the proceeds would initially be used for public health, safety and enforcement of the new rules, though by the fifth year of the tax, fully half of the money would go to children and youth programs.

The tax is critical if the county is going to regulate marijuana. Putting the tax on the ballot requires only a bare majority of votes on the board, which supporters appear to have. Two-thirds of the public will have to approve it next November, however, meaning that supporters have work to do if they are to sell the public on regulation.

While California has legalized medical and recreational marijuana, cities and counties can write their own rules and have the option of banning commercial operations like farms or dispensaries altogether. So far, San Joaquin County leaders have elected not to ban these businesses, but to put in place strict rules governing them.

Supervisor Kathy Miller said Tuesday that the county is already spending money to deal with illicit marijuana; regulating it could at least generate some cash.

“It isn’t that our expenses go away if we delay on this,” she said.

The children and youth programs that would be funded, she said, have efficiently used tobacco tax dollars to reduce smoking rates in young people. Funneling marijuana tax proceeds to the same organizations “may be the highest priority spending and investment that we could be making with these dollars,” Miller said.

But the minority votes on the board, Bob Elliott and Chuck Winn, continued to call for delay.

Check out our updated map showing shops licensed to sell recreational cannabis in California.

“I just don’t think it’s logical to try to justify commercial cannabis activities by saying that we’re going to dedicate 50 percent of the revenues to childhood education,” Elliott said. “Are we really doing what is best for our children by making it easier for them to obtain marijuana, and then using those tax revenues to try to teach them that they shouldn’t do it? It just seems backward to me.”

In related action on Tuesday, the county agreed to spend nearly $200,000 on consultants who will help officials draft marijuana regulations. The money will come from the county’s $80 million reserve, which is a fraction of its $1.6 billion budget. The reserve will be replenished “if there are sufficient commercial cannabis tax proceeds,” a staff report notes.

Winn seized on the word “if,” saying it’s unclear that the tax will generate enough money to have the benefits that supporters claim.

“I don’t understand the need for such a rush on this when we have an opportunity with our consultants to really give us some input as to what would be most appropriate for this county,” Winn said.

Miller noted that the tax measure, if formally approved on Jan. 23, could be pulled off the ballot later if supervisors decide to change course.

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