Business & Economy

Legal pot sales could come to Pasadena soon. But on whose terms?

Golden State Collective director Shaun Szameit and Pasadena Mayor Terry Tornek discussed two ballot initiatives aiming to allow adult use marijuana sales in the city, March 16, 2018.
Golden State Collective director Shaun Szameit and Pasadena Mayor Terry Tornek discussed two ballot initiatives aiming to allow adult use marijuana sales in the city, March 16, 2018.
David Wagner/KPCC

Listen to story

00:57
Download this story 0.0MB

California is now in its third month of legal recreational marijuana sales. But in many parts of the state, pot shops are still banned. 

Pasadena is one city that has long sought to restrict marijuana sales. But now it finds itself wrestling with a legalization push within its city limits. 

The city's answer though is to open the door to some legal pot businesses itself. 

On June 5th, Pasadena voters will be asked to weigh on a city-backed proposal to let a small number of pot stores open up in certain non-residential areas.

Mayor Terry Tornek said by putting the proposal on the state primary ballot, the city is trying to get ahead of a less restrictive initiative advocated by the local cannabis industry. 

"When the industry started collecting signatures to put their measure on the ballot in November, in a format that would suit them, they sort of forced our hand," Tornek said. 

In response, the city initiative would technically allow up to six retail shops throughout the city. But the actual number would likely be smaller, due to zoning restrictions leaving much of Pasadena off limits.

Only one shop would be able to operate in each city council district, and shops would have to locate 1,000 feet apart from each other and at least 600 feet away from homes and schools.  

 

A map shows where marijuana businesses would be allowed to set up shop in Pasadena under a city-backed proposal. Wide swaths of the city, shaded in yellow and gray, would be off limits. March 16, 2018.
A map shows where marijuana businesses would be allowed to set up shop in Pasadena under a city-backed proposal. Wide swaths of the city, shaded in yellow and gray, would be off limits. March 16, 2018.
David Wagner/KPCC

On Friday, Tornek appeared alongside one of those business owners, Shaun Szameit of Golden State Collective, at a meeting of the Pasadena-based Progressive Discussion Group. 

"They would not have this on the ballot if they were not jumping ahead of mine," Szameit said. 

The city currently bans marijuana, but dispensary owners have been operating in Pasadena for years, arguing that state law gives them the right to provide medical marijuana to patients.

Szameit said the city's proposal would force him to shut down. Existing business owners would not be allowed to apply for one of the handful of city-issued licenses.

But despite the possibility of going out of business, Szameit is reluctantly supporting the city's June initiative. He worries a no vote would give the city reason to continue its ban. 

"It's unfortunate, because I don't see how I'm an illegal operator," Szamiet said. "However I do know based on their ordinance that I will be disqualified." 

Szameit hopes his November ballot measure will still pass, loosening the restrictions set by the city's proposal. He argues it would create more tax revenue for the city — $7 million annually. Mayor Tornek said those projections are speculative. 

Those closely watching the roll-out of legal pot in California and other states say what's happening in Pasadena follows a familiar pattern: Local officials are starting to realize that legal sales are coming to their city one way or another. The only question is how much they can control the growth of the industry. 

"It's a balancing act," said Vanderbilt Law School professor and marijuana policy expert Robert Mikos.

"Especially in a place like California, where you have relatively easy access to ballot initiatives, lawmakers need to recognize that if they don't allow something to go through, the people can always go around them." 

And those voters may choose to welcome more businesses than local lawmakers would like.

Nearly two-thirds of Pasadena voters supported Proposition 64, which legalized adult use of marijuana throughout the state. Mayor Tornek said he doesn't expect those voters to turn their backs on legalization now.

"I'm pretty confident the voters will approve [the city's proposal] in June," he said. "And if the industry brings their proposal in November, I think it will be defeated."