The Santa Cruz City Council on Tuesday approved a permit for a cannabis dispensary at the former Emily’s Bakery at 1129 Mission St. (Stephen Baxter — Santa Cruz Local file)

SANTA CRUZ >> A proposed cannabis dispensary at the former Emily’s Bakery on Mission Street was approved by the Santa Cruz City Council on Tuesday despite school administrators’ arguments that it was too close to a high school and a middle school. 

The council voted 6-1 to approve an administrative use permit for The Hook Santa Cruz, paving the way for it to open at 1129 Mission St. at Laurel Street. Santa Cruz Vice Mayor Renee Golder was the lone dissenter.

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The city council imposed some additional conditions on The Hook, including that it submit quarterly reports on fake IDs to the city, collaborate with the school district and community stakeholders, undergo an annual review of its permit and not sell to customers younger than 21 during school hours. California law allows cannabis sales to customers 21 and older and as young as 18 with a physician’s recommendation. 

The applicant, Bryce Berryessa, already had agreed to make the windows on the Mission Street storefront opaque, to have minimal exterior signs, to implement enhanced security measures and to not sell to anyone younger than 19.

“It’s not the right location,” said Santa Cruz City Councilmember Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson at Tuesday’s four-and-a-half-hour permit hearing. Even so, she agreed to “very reluctantly support it,” as long as the additional conditions are met. She referred to herself as “an ally and friend to the cannabis industry.”

The Mission Street site met the required zoning criteria to be more than 600 feet from all schools, parks, day cares, youth centers and other cannabis retail outlets. Santa Cruz police expressed no concerns about the location, according to a city staff report. The location attracted criticism for being four blocks, or about 850 feet, from Santa Cruz High School and about 1,360 feet from Mission Hill Middle School. 

Kalantari-Johnson later introduced a motion aimed at prioritizing regular police sting operations at cannabis dispensaries to ensure they aren’t illegally selling to youths.

Santa Cruz City Councilmember Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson speaks during Tuesday’s council meeting. (Marcello Hutchinson-Trujillo — Santa Cruz Local)

Santa Cruz City Councilmember Scott Newsome, who represents District 4 where the shop is located, voted in favor of the permit. Golder, also the principal of nearby Bay View Elementary School, spoke against the permit.

“I cannot take even one step if it’s tipping the scales at all,” Golder said. “For me, this is about the ease of access.” She added, “Our counterculture and our acceptance of drug culture has contributed to the downfall of some peoples’ lives.”

After Emily’s Bakery shuttered last year, Berryessa, co-founder of two The Hook outlets in Watsonville and Capitola, as well as the Treehouse Dispensary in Soquel, applied for an administrative use permit to open a fourth cannabis retail store at the Mission Street site. Berryessa likewise received approval to acquire a Cannabis Retail License from the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM), a long-running collective known for serving terminally ill patients. There are five Cannabis Retail Licenses available within the City of Santa Cruz, all of which have been claimed.

Valerie Corral, co-founder and director of WAMM, said Tuesday that “we have massive debt” and that partnering with The Hook “is the only way for us to move forward.”

As part of his partnership with WAMM, Berryessa plans to continue to provide free or low-cost medical cannabis to low-income patients suffering from diseases such as cancer, AIDS and epilepsy. 

The five permitted cannabis dispensaries in the city of Santa Cruz must be 600 feet from schools, child care facilities, youth centers and parks with play structures. Areas in green show accepted areas for dispensaries. (City of Santa Cruz)

Santa Cruz City Schools Superintendent Kris Munro and the principals of Santa Cruz High and Mission Hill have urged the city council to use its discretionary powers to reject the application.

“We oppose the retail side being in daily close proximity to about 1,800 students,” Santa Cruz High Principal Michelle Poirier said Tuesday, adding that too many students “are misusing cannabis to address stress, anxiety and depression” and therefore “setting themselves up for academic ruin.”

In a 5-2 vote in March, the Santa Cruz Planning Commission approved The Hook’s application, prompting an appeal from a group of concerned parents that sent the matter to the city council. 

At Tuesday’s hearing, parents and school officials said they were not opposing legalized marijuana or WAMM, but simply the location. 

“There are a ton of kids who have to walk by [The Hook’s proposed store] every single day to get to and from school, and there is evidence that this could be harmful,” said Melinda White, a Santa Cruz High parent and physician.

White waded into the health effects of marijuana on teenagers and pointed out that the potency of cannabis products had skyrocketed in recent decades. She said she believed cannabis use is rising in Santa Cruz schools and said it was easy for teenagers to obtain scannable fake IDs and medical marijuana cards.

“There are alternative locations for WAMM. There is no alternative location for Santa Cruz High School,” said another Santa Cruz High parent, Annette Olson. “Please prioritize the health and well-being of our youth over a single recreational cannabis retailer.”

Olson added, “It’s well known that proximity matters. That’s true for tobacco, liquor stores and cannabis.”

Supporters of the proposed dispensary, many wearing green clothing at The Hook’s suggestion, who vastly outnumbered opponents at Tuesday’s hearing, pushed back against these arguments. Berryessa, for instance, said that legalized marijuana had not fueled an increase in teen drug use and that opponents were “relying on outdated fears and assumptions” instead of “understanding the real pathways of access for our youth.”

“The cellphones in students’ pockets expose them to far more temptations than a single monument sign with a green cross on Mission Street ever could,” Berryessa said. He said he just wanted to be treated the same way as any other business.  

The majority of the city council was unconvinced the Mission Street dispensary would exacerbate teen drug use in Santa Cruz. 

“Both sides have asked all along for months now to base the decision on evidence,” said Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley. “On that point, I have seen none” that specifically “ties middle and high school use of cannabis to dispensaries.”

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Jesse Greenspan is a freelance journalist who writes about history, science and the environment. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Scientific American, Audubon and other publications.