In a 3-2 vote at Tuesday night’s meeting, the Eureka City Council opened the door for two possible medical marijuana distribution centers in city limits. With the vote, the council majority directed staff to develop a request for qualifications, meaning the City will soon be accepting applications from potential dispensary owners.

While moving forward with this plan for two standalone distribution facilities, the council followed staff’s recommendation to hold off on allowing cultivation and processing facilities for the time being. The municipal code currently allows for as many as 10 medical cannabis-related facilities, including four cultivation/processing centers and up to six distribution centers. 

But in his presentation to the council, Eureka Community Development Director Rob Holmlund suggested taking a closer look at the municipal code to address concerns before inviting cultivation/processing centers. Among those concerns is whether or not to require medical marijuana sold in the city to also be grown — indoors — within city limits, as a previous subcommittee suggested. Holmlund questioned the wisdom of that requirement, noting that outdoor cultivation is more environmentally friendly.

The request for qualifications will allow the city to winnow down the list of applicants. Successful applicants will need to have a board of directors, business experience, a business plan, proof of insurance, detailed cultivation information, security and operations plans and more.

The council vote was perhaps the first to reveal the significance of the last general election, which saw challengers Kim Bergel and Natalie Arroyo replace two more politically conservative council members, Chester “Chet” Albin and Mike Newman.

Not to say there’s total harmony on the current board. In pre-vote discussion, 4th Ward Councilmember Melinda Ciarabellini voiced her disapproval, saying, “I really think we’re wasting the city’s time and energy. It’s not in my vision for the city of Eureka. Never was.” She suggested that any medical marijuana facility would impact public safety and damage the city’s image, and she said she’d prefer staff to work on other issues such as homelessness (which was indeed addressed later in the meeting). 

But 2nd Ward Councilmember Linda Atkins took exception to her comments, explaining that her sister relied on medical marijuana while she was undergoing cancer treatments to fight nausea and keep her weight up. “I think we need a dispensary or two in Eureka,” Atkins said. She argued that with tough regulations there was “no way” that two dispensaries would hurt the local business climate. 

With that, Atkins made a motion to move ahead with inviting applicants for distribution centers, and Bergel seconded.

Immediately before the vote, Mayor Frank Jager, a former police officer, voiced his own opinion. “I used to arrest people for having just seeds in their pockets,” he said. “Now we’re talking about distribution centers.” Jager was reminded of Bob Dylan’s quote about a-changin’ times — “not necessarily for better,” he said bitterly.

Ciarabellini and 1st Ward Councilmember Marian Brady voted against the motion, but the rest of the council carried the day.

In other matters, the council received several updates on strategies for dealing with homelessness, including a status report on the shifting focus of the Multiple Assistance Center (MAC) as well as the consulting work of Sacramento firm Focus Strategies. Eureka Police Chief Andy Mills also addressed the council regarding “Operation Summer Sanctuary,” the next in a proposed four-phase plan to eradicate the homeless encampments at Devil’s Playground, behind the Bayshore Mall. The plan was to set up a temporary encampment while more permanent solutions — including the MAC — develop.

“To be very frank,” Mills said, “it’s proving to be a little harder than planned.” As predicted by the Outpost‘s Hank Sims, the California Coastal Commission has laws and regulations that are interfering with the timeline proposed by Mills and Holmlund. 

“We’re looking at space outside of the coastal zone,” Mills said. “We’re not going to give up this easily, [but it’s] going to take more time than we’d hoped.” 

With those efforts ongoing, Mills didn’t have a recommendation for action from the council.

The city council did elect to extend its contract with Focus Strategies, which will now move forward with developing an implementation plan for the recommendations made in its policy paper. Firm co-founder Megan Schatz outlined her company’s major strategic approaches to ending homelessness, including prioritizing housing for those with the highest needs, quickly engaging people in the least expensive intervention methods, having short-length stays in programs, ensuring high rates of permanent housing placements and using data extensively.

On a more blunt note, Schatz addressed the conditions of Devil’s Playground. “I’ve been doing this awhile,” she said, referring to her consulting work on homelessness. “Eureka’s homeless camps are as rough as I’ve seen.”

The next steps in addressing the problem include assessing housing inventory, consulting with stakeholders and exploring funding options. Working with both the city and the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, Focus Strategies hopes to have a draft implementation plan ready by the end of June, with implementation starting before the end of the year.