Something truly remarkable happened in the Inland Empire recently–a city council actually took a step back from the reactionary mood of its police department and lawyers, educated itself on a controversial issue and made an informed decision based on reason instead of fear.
In other words, it happened in Claremont, that overeducated hippy record-store owner of a municipality, as similar to the rest of the IE as a café latte is to a can of Quaker State. While other cities pretend at good government with bullshit slogans and boosterism (Riverside, for example, calls itself "The City of Trees," and yet never saw a park it didn’t want to pave over), Claremont is different. Its motto is "The City of Trees and PhD’s" –and happens to have both in abundance.
The town also has an unofficial motto–"Policy is Our No. 1 Policy"–and it was in the spirit of this motto that, on July 22, the Claremont City Council voted 3-2 to allow a medical marijuana dispensary to operate in the city. The vote was immediately hailed by pot proponents, as jubilant at the notion that government might actually work as they were at the thought of not having to drive 30 miles into L.A. for their weed, and condemned by the anti-marijuana crowd, who saw the decision as yet another reason why Claremont shouldn’t be considered a part of the IE.
"In the most heralded act of government since the USA Patriot Act, the elder statesmen of Claremont have given the people what they want–fat sacks of weed," trumpeted the student blog ClaremontOTR.com on July 30. "The City Council has finally allowed government dope into Claremont. Hopefully in the next few months."
"Modern medicine has provided hundreds of other ways to kill pain that don’t involve smoking weed, but even if there are a tiny percentage of people for whom medical marijuana could be beneficial, there are too many problems with California’s bonehead law to make it worthwhile for a city to open up a pot shop," an observer posted July 24 on The Foothill Cities Blog. "However, Claremont has a throbbing vein of the rich, pseudo-intellectual, wanna-be hippy variety, so it might just vote for the thing."
To understand just how remarkable the council’s vote was, you have to consider all the formidable powers that had lined up to keep medical pot out of the city. Claremont Mayor Peter S. Yao and Police Chief Paul Cooper were opposed to it. The city’s contracted counsel–Sonia Carvalho–was not only opposed to it, but the powerful Riverside law firm she works for–Best, Best and Krieger–had successfully pushed through dispensary moratoriums in Coachella, Corona and Palm Desert. The federal government was against it to the point of threatening to send in the troops, as it had in its raid last month on the Healing Nations Collective dispensary in Corona.
Worse, a vote to allow dispensaries in Claremont would politically isolate the city from virtually all its Inland neighbors and a good chunk of the rest of the state. Since 1996, when California legalized the use of medical marijuana, 92 cities have either passed moratoriums against dispensaries or banned them outright. Against all this, a majority of Claremont’s City Council somehow found the courage to do the right thing, becoming only the second Inland Valley city to allow a dispensary in its midst (Diamond Bar being the first), and the only city in the Empire proper.
How did it happen?
For starters, it helped that the city had already gotten its anti-pot bile out of the way in its persecution of Darrell Kruse, a 52-year-old Chino accountant who last year opened a medical marijuana dispensary on Indian Hills Boulevard in Claremont without city permission or a business permit. Such a bold move was just asking for trouble, and that’s exactly what Kruse got. Claremont City Hall threw the matter to the wolves at Best, Best, & Krieger, who took the matter to an L.A. County judge, who promptly issued an injunction shutting Kruse’s business down.
"I have a lease at the shop and am forced to pay rent, even though I’m under court order not to use the property for any purpose whatsoever, whether it be business, personal or any other such use," he says. Kruse, who himself is a medical marijuana user for chronic back pain, says he opened the dispensary "out of solidarity" for Ronald Naulls, the operator of the Corona pot shop raided by the feds in July. If this is true (critics claim Kruse was simply in it for the money), then Kruse got off easy. He merely has to pay rent on a vacant storefront. Naulls currently faces 20 years in a dark, spidery prison on federal drug charges. But as ill-advised as Kruse’s actions were, they at least got the members of the Claremont council to think about what they were doing. After all this fuss and bother, were the members even opposed to the compassionate use of marijuana? As reported by the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin and Claremont Courier newspapers, it turned out that a majority of the five-member council had actually voted for Prop. 215–the initiative that made the medicinal use of pot legal in California. Against the backdrop of that revelation, the panel in May rejected a city staff recommendation to ban marijuana dispensaries. The writing on the wall was now visible for all to see: The Claremont council was at least open to the idea of allowing a marijuana dispensary in their city.
Pro-pot activists descended on the council, taking it upon themselves to educate the members on the drug’s medicinal benefits and the proper methods of inhaling and ingesting THC. Some residents even presented the council members with homemade brownies and cookies shaped like pot leaves.
What effect these efforts had on swaying the council’s collective mind is anybody’s guess. Yao and Councilman Corey Calaycay were from the beginning steadfastly opposed to dispensaries. Councilwomen Linda Elderkin and Ellen Taylor were in favor of them, with Taylor going so far as to publicly say she was OK with the use of weed just to maintain one’s sanity. It all boiled down to Sam Pedroza, a first-term councilman whose day gig as an environmental planner for the city of Los Angeles made him an unlikely candidate for tipping the scales in favor of a pot shop.
But as he weighed the pros and cons of opening Claremont to the perilous realities of the marijuana trade, Pedroza’s conscience was guided by personal experience. His mother recently died a painful death from cancer.
"Cancer is a very good case to look into when discussing medical marijuana," he says. "My mother was so against drugs, that when she was dying and marijuana was recommended to her by family members, she refused to because, in her mind, a drug was a drug was a drug. Unfortunately, in her last week, she was in so much pain that she couldn’t keep food down, so she took was prescribed to her – morphine patches – and so we couldn’t communicate with her. If she’d used medical marijuana, we would have had more time with her. We could have squeezed out a few more weeks or months in having her with us. If the medical profession had seen medical marijuana differently, she would have, as well."
On July 22, following a nearly six-hour meeting debating the issue with his colleagues, Pedroza cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of allowing a single medical marijuana dispensary in Claremont.
This is how marijuana will one day become completely legal, both here and throughout the nation. Not because the government as a whole will suddenly wake up one morning to the ruinous costs of criminalizing the estimated 40 million Americans who smoke pot. But because, one by one, individual members of the government will know on an intimate level how terrible those costs can be.
The council’s vote doesn’t mean anyone should now feel free to fire up a bowl on the steps of City Hall. Claremont has yet to decide which dispensary to allow into the city, and, according to Pedroza, such a decision won’t be made until restrictions are put in place to avoid the kinds of embarrassing free-for-alls witnessed in other pot-friendly cities. Pedroza says he’ll push for the city to put together an advisory panel of citizens to hammer out such issues as hours of operation and monitoring.
"In Claremont, we tend to like to research and understand something before we vote on it," he says. "That’s what made my vote so difficult, because I know dispensaries have had a negative impact on some cities. But I truly believe there’s a way to make it work. That’s what the challenge is for city staff and rsidents–to come up with an ordinance that will work."