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Riverside takes harder look at legal cannabis sales

Riverside has moved closer to allowing the sale of cannabis within its borders.

In a 5-2 vote last month, the city council made cannabis stores an “allowed business,” setting the stage for eventually having licensed cannabis storefronts in Riverside, according to a statement on the city’s website.

Besides making it possible for Riverside to permit, license, tax, and otherwise legally operate cannabis stores, the council’s vote could lead to a cannabis-related tax measure being placed on the city’s ballot November 2024.

Council members Chuck Conder and Jim Perry cast the dissenting votes. The council’s action reverses a policy Riverside put into place in 2017, which allowed only cannabis testing labs within city limits.

“[This] long overdue decision to overturn the ban on cannabis retail was the result of a multi-year effort that included intensive community and stakeholder input,” said Councilmember Ronaldo Fierro in the statement. “This is the first step in a pragmatic and sensible policy process that is centered around providing benefit and opportunity for all Riverside residents.”

That vote does not make the sale of cannabis legal in Riverside, but it does point the city in that direction, said Phil Pitchford, Riverside’s public information officer.

“With that vote, the council in effect told staff ‘this is where we want to go, now come up with a plan and show us how to get there,” Pitchford said. “They’ll probably present something this summer, and you could see the first legal cannabis shops in the city by late 2024.”

Riverside has been considering allowing cannabis sales since November 2021, when the economic development, placemaking and branding/marketing committee – a branch of the city council – told staff to begin looking for ways to make legal cannabis happen.

Eventually, staff worked with a consultant, HdL Companies in Brea, to help shape the measure the council approved Feb. 28.

During the last several years, some states, counties and cities have made marijuana use legal for recreational purposes, some 10 years after Colorado became the first state to do so.

Since then, 19 states and the District of Columbia have done the same thing. As of November, 21 states allow personal use of marijuana and 37 states allow its use for medical reasons, according to investopedia.com.

For financial reasons alone, that trend isn’t likely to end soon, if it goes away at all.

An estimated $3.7 billion in sales tax revenue was collected nationwide from cannabis sales in 2021, more than double what was generated in 2019, according to investopdedia.com.

That figure will grow, because a lot of municipalities that have legalized cannabis sales haven’t begun collecting tax revenue from it, the online publication reported. In 2016, California voters passed Proposition 64 – the Adult Use of Marijuana Act – by 57 percent to 43 percent. That made it legal for anyone 21 years old or older to use, sell or cultivate recreational cannabis.

In Riverside, permitted cannabis businesses would include storefront retail – with or without delivery – along with manufacturing-distribution businesses and test laboratories. All permits would have to be renewed annually.

Cannabis micro-businesses and cultivation would remain illegal under the city’s proposed policy, as would delivery-only operations. Up to 14 permits for cannabis storefront would be issued.

Right now, there are no restrictions on permits for manufacturing/distribution businesses or testing laboratories, a policy expected to remain in place.

All of that might be the basis for an ordinance making cannabis sales legal in Riverside, but the city needs to do more research before it makes a final decision, according to Perry.

“I voted no because I think there are a lot of issues that haven’t been addressed,” Perry said. “I haven’t seen a cost analysis, or any study of how much pressure this will put on our police and fire departments.

“I also haven’t seen anything about where the stores will go. I look at a city map and I have no idea where to put them.”

Details of the proposed tax initiative, including what kind of tax it will be and how high it will be set, also must be worked out.

“We’ll see what staff says and we’ll go from there,” Perry said. “But this is a complicated issue. A lot of lawyers would have a hard time figuring all of this out.”

Figuring out where Riverside voters stand on that issue is also difficult, according to Perry.

“People tell me that they’re not necessarily against selling cannabis, that they voted to decriminalize marijuana in California, but they also tell me they don’t want a store around the the block from where they live,” said Perry, who represents Riverside’s sixth ward. “I’m hearing that a lot.”

There’s no question that 14 legal cannabis shops would put a lot of money into Riverside’s general fund, but selling cannabis is not a regular retail business and it needs to be managed carefully, said Nicholas Adcock, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Riverside Chamber of Commerce.

“We have to focus on making the sale of cannabis as safe as possible for the whole community, and that starts with finding the best shop owners we can find,” Adcock said. “From the city’s perspective, I think that’s the most important thing to do.”

The chamber is recommending “buffer zones” of at least 1,000 feet between cannabis shops and certain institutions, like day care centers and K-12 schools, and that those shops be in restricted to specific zones, much like liquor stores.

“That’s the approach other jurisdictions have taken, and we believe that’s what Riverside should do,” Adcock said.

Chamber members are ambivalent regarding the sale of legal cannabis in Riverside, according to Adcock.

“I think it’s fair to say that, as a chamber, we don’t support it or oppose it,” Adcok said. “A few of our members are against it, but our strongest feeling is that if the city is going to do this it needs to do it carefully and make community safety a high priority.”

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