Trying to Avoid the Contact High
Alameda school board members and parents were influential in convincing the city to scale back its plan to legalize cannabis.
School board member Jennifer Williams helped lead a slow-growth movement on cannabis in Alameda.
Photo by Melati Citrawijera
When Jennifer Williams first heard that the city of Alameda, where she lives and has raised her kids for the past 17 years, was looking to legalize marijuana in 2018, it filled her with unease. It also engendered a strong desire to prevent recreational cannabis use—pot shops and stores that sell cannabis-infused sweet “edibles” like gummy bears and chocolates—from proliferating on the Island.
Williams, an Alameda school board member, is a believer in the powers of medicinal cannabis, but she’s also familiar with the darker side of substance abuse. Not only does she have a younger brother with a drug addiction that she said was fueled in his teenage years by marijuana use, she also is an administrative law judge for San Francisco’s Human Services Agency. On a daily basis, she sees clients of county public assistance who are on the brink of losing their housing or are a welfare check away from hunger, she said.
“I am humbled by what I see,” she said. “It’s a very disenfranchised population as it is. Some of them have cannabis dependence issues and for other more serious drugs—I see a lot. It runs the gamut. They have problems holding down permanent jobs and are about to lose their housing. I see the long-term impact that substance abuse has had on members of our community, and it’s something that weighs on me, for sure.”
Over the past few months, Williams has helped spearhead—along with a school board committee, the Alameda PTA, and public health advocates—a slow growth movement when it comes to legalized marijuana in Alameda.
Last fall, the city council started mulling over its cannabis policy in anticipation of marijuana becoming legal for recreational use on Jan. 1, following the passage in 2016 of Proposition 64 (which also garnered 66 percent of the vote in Alameda). The city began considering whether the vacant storefronts not far from Harbor Bay Landing Shopping Center, just a few doors down from the Safeway, CVS, Subway, and the UPS Store—or those at South Shore Shopping Center, somewhere between that Starbucks and Bed Bath and Beyond—could be the site of the next pot shop or other cannabis-friendly businesses.
“It was a bit of wake-up call for Alameda parents,” said Page Tomblin, president of the Alameda PTA Council. “And it’s going to change how we talk to our kids, especially now you are going to be able to walk by places in the city and see more signs and advertising for such businesses.”
As a result, both the Alameda school board and the PTA urged the city council to delay legalizing cannabis in Alameda for recreational use. And on Nov. 21, the council voted 3-2 to approve an ordinance that was scaled back significantly from what was considered a couple of months before.
Rather than the three to four dispensaries recommended by the city staff that would include both medicinal and recreational cannabis sales, the council adopted a new law that allows for no more than two medicinal cannabis dispensaries—and no recreational ones—in the city. The new law also specifies that the new dispensaries must be more than a mile away from each other and not within a 1,000-foot buffer zone from schools, child care centers, and recreational centers, said Debbie Potter, Alameda’s director of community development. The ordinance also allows one cannabis nursery to be built in the city, which also can be no more than 1,000 feet away from those sites. It also limits businesses that manufacture cannabis-based products to four and the number of testing labs to two, ensuring that they be no more than 600 feet from such sites. It also does not permit people to smoke marijuana in public places or in multifamily housing.
Mayor Trish Herrera Spencer, who voted for the ordinance and had supported allowing more cannabis outlets, said she was committed to the safety of the city’s youth but believes that allowing medicinal marijuana in Alameda is critical to the health and well-being of its residents. She also contends that it will decrease exposure to illicit street drugs like meth and cocaine. “We know many Alamedans are disabled and elderly currently travel to dispensaries in Oakland to receive the medical treatment they need, which can be challenging,” she said in an email to the magazine. “And as a 10-year breast cancer survivor who has spent many hours surrounded by others at Herrick Cancer Center, I strongly believe that our government must research the use of cannabis to reduce side-effects for those suffering from disease and illness.”
With the expanded buffer zone imposed by the city, pot dispensaries will likely now be primarily confined to an area to the north end of Park Street down to Buena Vista Avenue and a short stretch of Webster Street from Buena Vista and Lincoln Avenue, Potter said. Even still, Williams and many other parents say they’re concerned about the fact that there’ll be cannabis dispensaries allowed on Park Street at all, not far from the schools where kids roam during lunch time and after class.
Williams said it’s critical that a portion of the future taxation of cannabis-related business in the city, which is projected to be $800,000 to $1.6 million annually, go specifically to youth cannabis education, awareness, and counseling. That money could be used in the classroom to better teach the effects of marijuana and substance abuse to kids and hold workshops for families, as well as help the district distribute multilingual informational pamphlets, said Chuck Kapelke, vice president of advocacy for the Alameda PTA.
Serena Chen, a public health consultant and advocate who spent years fighting to get cities to pass tobacco control laws and no-smoking laws, said that her experience with tobacco made her realize how important it is to take a cautious approach to introducing legalized marijuana into communities—rather than letting it become a smoke free-for-all like it was for tobacco in its heyday. “It was like putting the genie back in the bottle,” she said.
She’s also concerned about the cannabis industry copying the advertising tactics of tobacco and alcohol industries, recalling the old Joe Camel ads, in which ads featured him at a pool hall throwing a pack of cigarettes to baby camels. “We need to be vigilant and need to really stand up for the future of our children, because daily use of marijuana is really devastating to the adolescent brain,” she said. Kathryn Lamb-Tansey, president of the Alameda High PTA, said she worries because so many students mistakenly think marijuana is just an innocuous drug, and it’s already something that many kids already have easy access to, she said.
About 35 percent of 11th graders in Alameda have reported trying marijuana at least one time, with 21 percent reporting they’ve used it in the past month, according to the 2016-2017 recent California Healthy Kids Survey. Although Prop. 64 requires that people be 21 to purchase legal cannabis, the proliferation of marijuana outlets could make it easier for youth to access pot and pot-infused edibles, such as gummy bears, brownies, cookies, chocolate, and even cotton candy—which give the appearance of making marijuana more acceptable and enticing to kids while also being hard to detect. Edibles have also led to ER visits in other parts of the country where marijuana is legal.
An American Academy of Pediatrics report published in February in light of the recent loosening of marijuana laws nationwide in 29 states and Washington, D.C., warned that regular marijuana use is detrimental to the still developing adolescent brain, leading to changes in the brain’s executive functions like memory, attention, learning, retention, and impulse control. It increases the chances that young people develop serious mental health disorders, including addiction, depression, and psychosis. Adolescents also run a great risk of addiction to pot, with 17 percent of those who use it becoming addicted, compared to 9 percent of adults.
In addition, improved strains of cannabis have greatly increased its potency through the years. The concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive substance in marijuana plants, has risen from roughly 4 percent in 1995 to 12 percent in 2014. And cannabis strains now contain concentrations as much as 20 percent of THC. In other more concentrated forms, like dabs and waxes, and with the use of vaporizers and e-cigarette devices, those levels can rise even higher.
“It’s not the same marijuana from when the hippies smoked or even when their dads and moms might have smoked,” said Ralph Cantor, a Berkeley-based marijuana awareness educator who has been giving talks for 15 years throughout the Bay Area to schools and parents, including those in Alameda. “I’m glad marijuana is legalized. It’s about damn time, you know, but at the same time research has shown that it’s truly detrimental for teenage brains.”
Kathleen Khan-Austin, an Alameda High teacher, who has for 11 years been teaching Current Life Issues to 10th graders, which includes teaching kids about the dangers of substance abuse, including marijuana, agreed that dispensaries should not be located close to schools but didn’t think marijuana’s legalization would change how she teaches the issue in the classroom. She has tried to focus on an honest, factual approach for quite some time, as marijuana has become legal in more states, including Colorado, Oregon, and Washington.
“Marijuana will always have its draw to certain kids, but I do think they do listen to what we teach them,” she said.
One high schooler, who said he and more than half of his friends smoke it occasionally, said on the condition of anonymity that it doesn’t matter where the dispensaries are located.
Even with legalization, most students will likely keep getting pot the same way they always have—through a friend of a friend or other connections, he said. It’s also hard to say how big a role dispensaries will play because many people may prefer the cheaper prices of unregulated, untaxed pot anyway, he said. “And most kids who use it do see it harmful for their health, but it gets taken for granted,” he added. “So, I don’t think the buffer zone will have much more than effect than having liquor stores close to the school do on people drinking.
“Most people who are afraid of its health risks are going to avoid it—and those who don’t will not.”