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, thinking about how far our society has come in reshaping our understanding of cannabis. 

Cannabis has had top billing over the course of many 20th- and 21st-century eras, from Reefer Madness in the 1930s to the 1960s counterculture and the catastrophic war on drugs in the 1970s that caused generational problems. I remember how, back when I was in elementary school, cannabis was almost the only drug talked about during the since-discontinued Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program. Then, slowly, research began to prove some interesting medical uses for the plant that spurred medicinal legalization and now, recreational legalization in 19 states, as well as Washington D.C. and Guam.

How cannabis became such a controversial plant in the first place is for another story and another time. But things have changed—it’s worth noting that cannabis has won the hearts of voters and polls nationally. The latest poll in April from Pew Research Center showed 60 percent of U.S. adults surveyed think cannabis should be legalized recreationally. With such clear support, it makes you wonder about the process of government and allowing the people, as a whole, to decide what is best for them. 

Cannabis has had its own journey on the Monterey Peninsula. That journey culminated last night with Monterey’s City Council voting 4-1 in favor of staff beginning the work to bring “three or fewer” recreational cannabis dispensaries to town. They highlighted some locations as well, including downtown with the exception of Alvarado Street; the Lighthouse Avenue district and Cannery Row with the exception of the actual Cannery Row strip—basically Wave and Foam streets.

How many dispensaries the city will get and when they will get them remains vague. Three voting members, Mayor Clyde Roberson and Councilmembers Tyller Williamson and Alan Haffa, supported at least two dispensaries with the door open for a third. Councilmember Dan Albert said he was comfortable with only one dispensary at present, though he ended up voting for the language of “three or fewer.” Councilmember Ed Smith, whose former career was in law enforcement, has remained an inflexible no vote.

Throughout the conversation and debate around cannabis in Monterey, the mayor and council have stuck to the idea that any cannabis store to arrive within the city’s boundaries would have to be “world class” and fit in with the character of the city. City staff will now begin the work of amending neighborhood development plans and setting boundaries around youth centers and schools to map out where a recreational cannabis shop could likely go. Through all the bureaucracy, which includes putting a request for proposals out to cannabis retailers, assistant city manager Nat Rojanasathira tells me it could be a year before the city has a dispensary in operation. 

Mayor Roberson might have said it best when he described the conversation around cannabis “dynamic and difficult.” While Haffa and Williamson tried to make other council members and members of the public to see the hypocrisy of allowing bars, nightclubs and tobacco shops within the city—drugs proven to kill or cause life-threatening illness—Smith held steadfast to the values he learned coming up as a police officer: cannabis is no good and it would go against his “moral fiber” to say yes to bringing this plant to the city.

Haffa brought his vote back, partially, to the role of government. “If we as a government are going to limit people’s access to something they want then there needs to be an overriding public safety concern that simply does not objectively exist [with cannabis].”

And with that, the effort to move forward with the intent to bring a dispensary to the city of Monterey is well underway.

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