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September 26, 2006 > Difficult decisions

Difficult decisions

by Steve Warga

In a celebratory mood, the Newark City Council reconvened, September 12, after their routine August recess. Wasting no time, Mayor David Smith introduced several "Newark Days" volunteers to discuss plans and highlights of this year's celebration of the city's birthday. The mayor could not resist interjecting his signature, "Yowza!" exclamation several times as he enthused over the expanded menu of events, foods, products and entertainment. As they were speaking, opening events were unfolding only a few blocks from City Hall.

By the close of festivities the following Sunday, September 15, no one was disappointed. Once again, Newark Days was a smashing success. Several days later, the president of Newark Days, Shirley Sisk, said, "It couldn't have gone better." An estimated 129,000 people visited during the event's four day run, about 12 percent more than attended last year's 50th birthday bash. Sisk enthusiastically praised the efforts of all event volunteers, the orderly crowds, and even the weather. Plans for 2007 are already taking shape, including choice of a theme. Sisk tells TCV the next Newark Days will be billed as "Cirque de Newark."

The mayor and council moved through their agenda of routine business before confronting a decision on an ordinance compelling all city statutes and regulations to conform with state and federal laws. Opponents were on hand in force to protest this seemingly benign item on the agenda. After all, who could fault the city for seeking conformity with state and federal laws? Attorney Robert Raich of Oakland certainly could. He reminded city elders that 65% of Newark voters endorsed Proposition 215, which legalized obtaining and using marijuana for treatment of severe illness for California residents. It passed in 1996. However, the federal government argued in the early years of George W. Bush's first term that marijuana was a banned substance and any use or trafficking was a crime, regardless of California voter sentiments.

Raich contends that Newark's conformity ordinance is actually an attempt by the city to close a Central Avenue marijuana dispensary, "KindCare Resource Center." He argued that it "simply is not the function of city government to enforce federal law."  This was curious reasoning given the city's stated intent merely to conform with state and federal laws, not enforce them. Nonetheless, Raich threatened legal action if council approved the ordinance. The threat of litigation compelled City Attorney Gary Galliano to advise a recess into closed session based on provisions of the Brown Act which regulates open government practices. Council did go into closed session, but not before hearing riveting testimony from numerous citizens on hand that evening.

After an outspoken woman commandeered the podium, identified herself as "Exotica Ecstasy," then launched into a monologue that bordered on parody, another woman named Angel Raich of Oakland stepped forward and delivered an emotional body blow to all present. A polar opposite of the rambunctious Ms. Ecstasy, Raich pulled everyone to the edge of their chairs with her direct manner and well-spoken reconstruction of events of how she went from a healthy, happy devoted mother to the brink of suicide as the only way to escape great, wracking bouts of pain and nausea from multiple, life-threatening illnesses. Only in the end times of true desperation did she set aside her small-town conservative attitudes toward illegal drugs long enough to try marijuana, or "cannabis" as every speaker preferred to call it. There were no rants from Raich and only a brief touch of tears at the mention of her children from this physically frail mental giant of a woman.

Numerous other KindCare patrons followed, with equally harrowing descriptions of tremendous physical suffering alleviated to tolerable levels by regular use of cannabis. Mayor Smith allowed each and every speaker as much time as they wished and not once did a councilmember attempt to refute any testimony. There was no question of authenticity. These souls have suffered severe maladies; they all went through more traditional treatments; those treatments failed to ease their suffering, so they tried marijuana and found some relief. Their common plea to the council was to reject the proposed ordinance and allow KindCare to continue operating in Newark. Otherwise, patrons would be forced to drive to Oakland for cannabis. Or, they would be forced to risk punishment by purchasing from drug dealers.

After closed session, a somber council filed back to their seats. Very quietly, Councilmember Al Nagy moved to adopt the ordinance. His was the only statement for or against the motion. He said, "The ordinance does not speak to the use of cannabis, only to the matter of conformity with state and federal laws." Councilmember Sue Johnson seconded, a unanimous vote followed.

This was a difficult decision of the sort many politicians instinctively avoid. Acting as one, Newark's City Council addressed a flaw in city statutes. It was not a popular decision and it may well trigger litigation. Still, they voted in a manner consistent with their sense of civic obligation. 

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