Berkeley City Council votes to become marijuana sanctuary city, lower pot taxes

Berkeley's City Council voted unanimously to become a sanctuary city for cannabis users Tuesday night. 

The council took the symbolic stand against U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Trump administration who have indicated they still consider marijuana to be an illegal substance and do not plan to take marijuana prosecutions off the table. 

The resolution makes it illegal for Berkeley police and other city employees to assist federal officials with drug enforcement action that solely targets marijuana users or sellers. 

Recreational cannabis sales became legal in the state of California on January 1, 2018 after California voters passed Proposition 64 the previous year legalizing recreational cannabis.

"We are going to provide sanctuary, we're not going to share information with the DEA, we're not going to assist with the enforcement of federal drug laws," said Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin was one of the sponsors with Council Member Cheryl Davila.

Mayor Arreguin added an amendment to the resolution, in consultation with Berkeley's Police Chief. The amendment  would allow police to assist the Drug Enforcement Agency with investigations involving other criminal activity.

"Any sort of gang activity, any sort of criminal activity that would not preclude us from cooperating with the DEA," said Arreguin.

Mayor Arreguin acknowledges the resolution is a symbolic stand.

"There's nothing preventing the DEA from coming to Berkeley," said Arreguin.

"We're glad the city is supporting the cannabis industry," said Sabrina Fendrick, of the Berkeley Patients Group dispensary.

Fendrick and more than a dozen members of the cannabis industry attended the meeting, concerned not just about the federal  government.

They say their business is also being threatened by unlicensed sellers who don't have to pay taxes or comply with state regulations. 

On the agenda was a resolution calling for Berkeley to lower the 10% tax on recreational cannabis to the same 2.5% tax rate for medical marijuana.

"You're competing with the black market that doesn't have to pay any of those taxes and on top of the taxes, you have compliance expenses, you have very strict security protocols that you have to follow that come from the state," said Fendrick, "How is this new system going to work if we can't incentivize people to enter the legal aboveground market. 

Some community members said they thought it was too early to reduce taxes and called for more time and research. 

After more than an hour of public comments and debate, the council voted 7-0 with two abstentions to reduce the recreational cannabis tax rate from 10% to 5% to allow legal operations to be more competitive with unlicensed sellers. 

The second reading of the ordinance will be held in two weeks and then the ordinance will then take effect 30 days afterwards.