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Costa Mesa’s Cannabis Compromise: Fewer Shops, Looser Restrictions

The City Council’s latest decision seems like a win for public safety, but may be a Trojan Horse that hides a host of unfavorable concessions.

During last week’s Costa Mesa City Council meeting, Councilmembers voted 6-1 to approve implementing a cap on the number of retail cannabis shops allowed within the city. Specifically, it established a limit of 35 conditional use permits, 22 of which have already been issued

The proliferation of cannabis shops in Costa Mesa has been a contentious issue. Prior to the March 19th meeting, the city’s Planning Commission had been soliciting community feedback and working on a list of suggested amendments to the retail cannabis provisions. These amendments, aimed at improving neighborhood safety and upholding community character, included increasing the “youth center” and cannabis storefront separation from 600 to 1,000 feet, as well as establishing a minimum separation between cannabis storefronts and properties zoned for residential use.

While the move has been hailed as a victory for Costa Mesa community advocacy, the Council’s cannabis regulation could also be seen as something of a proverbial Trojan Horse, offering concessions that could ultimately undermine the very protections residents seek.

For one, the City Council is looking to lower fees associated with starting a pot shop. Councilman Loren Gameros even suggested cutting one such fee, which requires businesses to pay for employee background checks through the police department, in half. Additionally, he pushed to allow prospective employees to receive temporary badges before their background checks have cleared.

“I want us, as part of the motion here, to reduce the badging fee,” said Gameros. “PD’s is $81. We’ll just leave that alone. But the developmental services part to the tune of $550, I’d like to reduce that in half to $225. And I’d also like to include in that that if the company wants to hire someone, they can do so immediately and they get a temporary badge issued to them, and during that time… we’ll determine whether or not they can remain as a full-time employee.”

Because cannabis stores are subject to special taxes and generate revenue for the State, many local municipalities are tempted to find ways to make it easier and more financially attractive for new shops to open. But this rush by the Council to accommodate the industry by substantially reducing fees sends the wrong message.

Furthermore, allowing individuals to vend in cannabis shops without a completed and vetted background check compromises State and City regulations. In California, employees are required to carry identification badges including their cannabis license number(s). In Costa Mesa, as in most cities, employees must also pass a police background check. Security protocols such as these exist to ensure that all personnel meet the most basic requirements to sell mind-altering drugs. This is one corner that the City Council should not be cutting.

Councilman Don Harper also succeeded in pushing for refunds to be issued to cannabis businesses that are early in the application process. A staff report estimated that this equates to about $25,500. 

It is also notable that the City Council did not agree to increasing the distance between residential neighborhoods and cannabis shops, despite this issue being at the forefront of the public’s concerns. Before and after the meeting, that degree of separation stands a meager 100 feet.

“The Planning Commission is proposing that cannabis storefronts be 500 feet away from another cannabis storefront. I’m asking that you give the Costa Mesa residents the same protection and respect,” said one resident during public comment. She went on to cite Santa Ana’s ordinance which requires that a cannabis store cannot be set up within 1,000 feet of a residence—ten times greater than what is currently permitted in Costa Mesa.

On one hand, the Council’s willingness to limit the number of cannabis shops is a direct acknowledgment of community concerns. However, the city is, as the saying goes, taking two steps forward and one step back. The Council catered to local cannabis industry leaders—many of whom spoke during the meeting—by adding to any new provision a series of changes that will make it easier, not harder, to open cannabis stores in Costa Mesa.

“I think we’re all interested in speeding up the process and reducing requirements,” Councilwoman Arlis Reynolds said.

In doing so, critical concerns went unaddressed. With any luck, the dialogue between City officials and citizens will continue in future meetings until these issues, like proximity to residential properties, are reexamined and resolved.

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