Encinitas voters, instead of the City Council, will be the ones deciding whether to allow commercial marijuana growing operations on the city’s few agriculturally zoned lands.

And for now, until that likely November 2018 ballot measure, the city’s current bans on marijuana will remain in place, the council decided late Wednesday night.

Cities across California have been grappling with the issue of marijuana regulations ever since voters approved the marijuana legalization initiative Proposition 64 last year.

[related_articles location=”left” show_article_date=”false” article_type=”automatic-primary-section” curated_ids=””]The intensity of the debate has only increased in recent months as the January 2018 state deadline for putting regulations in place approaches.

Last month, San Diego City Council voted to legalize both cultivation and manufacturing, while Poway decided to continue its bans on cultivation, manufacturing and establishing dispensaries.

Encinitas, which has a long agricultural heritage and is famous for starting the nation’s poinsettia industry, began exploring the idea of allowing commercial marijuana growing operations months ago after one of the city’s longtime flower growers — Bob Echter of Dramm & Echter Inc. — asked the city to consider it, saying it would allow him to diversify his business and help preserve the city’s agricultural heritage.

A proposed ordinance before the City Council Wednesday night called for allowing commercial marijuana growing only on agriculturally zoned lands — essentially a handful of properties in the Ecke Ranch region of the city, only one of which — Dramm & Echter — has indicated any interest in growing the crop.

Council members decided to put the issue on the ballot rather than taking a vote on the proposed ordinance after hearing hours of public testimony from more than 60 people, with roughly 60 percent of them opposed to the proposed ordinance. The council’s decision was 4-1, with Councilman Mark Muir opposed.

Councilman Tony Kranz, who has been a strong supporter of allowing commercial marijuana growing, said Encinitas voters haven’t yet sent the city’s leaders a clear message about what they want.

“I think the right position for the council is to put this on the ballot and let the voters decide,” he said as he suggested the ballot measure proposal.

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The city’s voters overwhelmingly backed Proposition 64 — the California marijuana legalization initiative last year — but two years earlier they rejected Proposition F — an Encinitas citizens’ initiative that would have allowed marijuana dispensaries to open in town, he noted.

“It was quite a mixed message between those two ballot measures,” he said.

Mayor Catherine Blakespear, who held off on voicing a position in the past, and Councilwoman Tasha Boerner Horvath, who has supported commercial growing, agreed.

“This is truly one of the most difficult issues I have faced since I have been on the council,” Boerner Horvath said, adding that months ago she had thought that this wouldn’t be the case.

Councilman Joe Mosca, who opposed the proposed rdinance, said he wouldn’t “stand in the way” of putting the issue on the ballot, but said he felt marijuana growing businesses were not compatible with the city.

Muir, who has strongly opposed the proposed ordinance and is married to a school board member who has been helping organize community opposition to it, said he thought the council was making a poor decision. It ought to be easy to vote no, he said, adding that he believes commercial marijuana growing might lower neighboring property values, while increasing crime and youth drug use.

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“I think the big winners in this are the pro-pot people,” he later added. “They don’t have to put it on the ballot — the city’s going to pay for it.”

The San Diego-based Association of Cannabis Professionals had been circulating a petition to put an initiative on the ballot in Encinitas, but informed the city clerk late Tuesday that it was being withdrawn.

On Wednesday night, association representative Dallin Young said that his group withdrew its petition because it appeared that the council would use the possibility of a citizens’ initiative as an excuse to “kick the can down the road” and delay on voting that night on the proposed ordinance.

Muir told Young that he didn’t buy that, and wondered if the group faced a “lack of interest” in its petition as community opposition to the commercial grow proposal has spread in recent weeks.

“Not at all,” Young responded.

During the hours of public testimony that night, council members heard many opponents and proponents of the proposed ordinance.

Supporters included current and past Encinitas flower business owners, as well as the head of the San Diego County Farm Bureau and people who provide marijuana to medical patients.

Opponents included many people who live near the Dramm & Echter property, youth drug-free advocates, and people who have relatives who’ve struggled with drug abuse issues.

© 2017 San Diego Union Tribune, www.sandiegouniontribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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