After hearing from dozens of supporters and opponents of a proposed ordinance that would allow commercial cultivation of immature, non-flowering cannabis plants in existing Half Moon Bay greenhouses, the Half Moon Bay City Council elected late Tuesday night to throw the decision back to the voters.
Coastsiders representing both sides packed the Ted Adcock Community Center on Tuesday night for the regularly scheduled City Council meeting. Several of the opponents wore orange beads around their necks and held papers with the words "please no commercial cultivation of marijuana" typed on them.
Opponents were critical of the city's desire to begin the ordinance process before completing a study of similar jurisdictions in states where commercial cannabis is legal. They are concerned that allowing nursery starts in the area would lead to a perceived acceptance of the drug and encourage its use among the city's youth. A few people referred to it as a "foot in the door" that would lead to cultivation of mature plants. Members of the Latino community highlighted a fear that farmworkers working with cannabis might be subject to U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement raids given that the drug is considered illegal by the federal government.
Supporters argued that the agricultural community is struggling. They said allowing cannabis cultivation may be the only way to preserve the city's identity as a farming town. Two Half Moon Bay farmers - John Muller and Erich Shickenberg - spoke about those struggles. They talked about how they would like to take advantage of a potential ordinance allowing these nursery starts.
Projects such as the current Dunes Beach hotel and recreational vehicle proposal slated for former agricultural land might be the new norm, a supporter argued, if farmers can't afford to keep their operations going. They also highlighted the highly regulated nature of the ordinance and the fact that the immature plants have no smell. They argued that young people already have easy access to cannabis and allowing the cultivation of these young plants shouldn't affect that.
The Half Moon Bay City Council was largely in favor of the ordinance. Council members reiterated the public's points about preserving the agricultural nature of the town and noted that it should be the parents' responsibility to manage behavior around cannabis use.
"Arguments against starter plants are emotional," said Half Moon Bay Mayor Deborah Penrose. "I don't believe that nursery starts have anything to do with addiction. They're two separate items in my mind."
Half Moon Bay Councilman Rick Kowalczyk noted that strong arguments were heard on both sides and encouraged the council not to push through with an ordinance that night.
Councilman Harvey Rarback was ready to put forth a motion to vote on the ordinance but the large opposition gave the other council members pause.
In addition to the proposed nursery start ordinance on November's ballot, voters will also be asked to consider three advisory items that would give the city an idea on where the community falls on other cannabis-related activities. They include retail sales, cultivation of mature plants and cannabis manufacturing.
Before the election, the city plans to hold a series of educational meetings intended to inform what allowing immature cannabis cultivation would mean for the community. Cannabis cultivation of immature plants is currently permitted in the unincorporated areas of the San Mateo County Coastside but no one has yet elected to apply for a license.
Councilmembers said they hope people will approach the idea with an open mind.
"I hope that the decision will be based on everything that they've heard tonight from both sides," Penrose said. "Understand that Half Moon Bay is an agricultural community... that's the reason for the development of the ordinance in the first place."
An earlier version of this story misspelled Erich Shickenberg's first name.