Christopher Neely covers a mixed beat that includes the environment, water politics, and Monterey County's Board of Supervisors. He began at the Weekly in 2021 after five years on the City Hall beat in Austin, TX.

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Christopher Neely here, with local politics and compromise on the brain.

Five years after most California voters supported the legalization of recreational cannabis and more than three years after the first recreational dispensary opened in the state, the business model in question still faces substantial obstacles in some localities.

The latest example of this is in Monterey, where councilmembers on May 4 punted on the issue. City staff recommended bringing the city’s first three retail cannabis shops to Monterey’s three most popular tourist destinations: Lighthouse Avenue, downtown and Cannery Row.

Some of their concerns followed the normal public discourse, such as neighborhood opposition near Cannery Row; however, much objection centered on personal feelings that seemed to ignore the data that taxpayers paid to collect. At one point, Mayor Clyde Roberson asked whether the city was getting ahead of itself.

“Are we putting the cart before the horse?” Roberson asked. “In that, we’re talking about potential areas where we want dispensaries and we don’t even know if we want a dispensary in Monterey yet.” It was a sentiment with which Councilmember Ed Smith agreed.

Yet, in a city survey sent to every Monterey resident, more than 57 percent of respondents said they strongly or somewhat support retail cannabis coming to town, with less than 39 percent strongly or somewhat opposed—numbers which were clearly presented to City Council. Roberson then, without citing a reason, questioned the validity of the revenue potential calculated in an independent financial analysis, also paid for with tax dollars.

Some councilmembers expressed concern about young children walking near cannabis shops, an argument which Councilmember Alan Haffa said ignores the presence of liquor stores, bars and pharmacies in the same areas. Such businesses are standard in most cities, and play a role in fueling America’s substance abuse issues.

Data failed to support many of the concerns raised during the discussion, which means the decision to bring cannabis to Monterey might not depend on data or public opinion, but on the personal preference of the elected officials. This was captured acutely in one of the later exchanges between the men.

Mayor Clyde Roberson: “In my heart, I’m thinking, I’d like tourists to come to Monterey, I’d like them to enjoy our waterfront, I’d like it to be affordable. I just kind of [am] struggling with ‘Oh, come on tourists and, by the way, while you’re here, we want your cannabis money.’”

Councilmember Alan Haffa: “Clyde, I mean, what about alcohol sales? Does that mean we should be closing down bars that primarily serve tourists? I mean, I don’t see the difference to be honest, I’m not sure what the difference is.”

Councilmember Ed Smith: “Part of it is they’re already here. We have a choice with this and we don’t necessarily have a choice with the alcohol and tobacco.”

Haffa would later cite one more data pointthe financial crisis inflicted on Monterey by the pandemic.

“If we ultimately decide to kick the can down the road and not move forward, I will be looking for the councilmembers who feel that way to find another million dollars going forward, year after year, and look for other ways to fund things like our homeless shelters, rental assistance programs, those kinds of things…we’re in a real financial crisis,” Haffa said.

Different ideas and opinions should always be welcomed in the public square. In politics, debate is the steel that makes our policies sharpest. Of course, that is easier said from the bleachers than performed in the chambers. The debate over cannabis in Monterey will facilitate a better overall policy for the city, as long as the arguments are founded in public opinion, facts and data rather than the personal preferences of a few.

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