In a move that divided the city's famously left-leaning politicians, the Santa Cruz City Council on Tuesday voted to create a city department to distribute medicinal marijuana.
If it eventually comes into being -- something that is doubtful at this point -- the Office of Compassionate Use would become the first such municipal office in the country.
The vote marks the latest salvo by the council in a long-running battle over medicinal pot. Three years ago, the council allowed medicinal marijuana to be given away on the steps of City Hall as journalists from around the world recorded the moment.
This time, however, council members didn't seem to be thumbing their noses at U.S. drug laws. The council made clear Tuesday it had no intention to establish the office unless it wins a legal fight with federal officials in a court of law.
"I am excited, and I applaud the city council for its creativity and bold decision to put the issue squarely before the courts in a way that is not reckless," said Allen Hopper, senior staff attorney with the Drug Law Reform Project, a national project of the American Civil Liberties Union based in Santa Cruz.
The council passed the first reading of the ordinance on a 4-2 vote. Vice Mayor Cynthia Mathews and Councilman Ryan Coonerty dissented. Councilman Ed Porter was absent.
Mathews said she fully supported the right of allowing sick patients to smoke medicinal marijuana, but worried that it could end up costing the cash-strapped city money.
"I'm not comfortable with the expectations it creates," Mathews said. "I'm not convinced this is something the city can or should take on."
The city, she said, "is on the ropes" financially, "to put it mildly."
But Mayor Mike Rotkin assured Mathews -- usually a strong ally on the council -- that he wouldn't have introduced the measure if "I thought it would cost the city of Santa Cruz money. . . . All of us are quite aware of the fiscal crisis."
Rotkin, who said the program could be supported by user fees, argued that medicinal marijuana was an important issue to so many Santa Cruzans. To some, he said, it's the "most important issue in their life."
Hopper said the fact that a city would be willing to actually distribute medicinal marijuana could lead to a legal showdown over the meaning of the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as it applies to medicinal pot.
The amendment reads: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."
Earlier this month, a divided Mountain View City Council voted to study the mechanics and legalities of making the city's drug stores medicinal marijuana dispensaries.
Along the same lines, Santa Cruz council members indicated Tuesday they'd like to see drug stores such as Walgreens distribute the marijuana if the municipal Office of Compassionate Use is eventually set up.
California voters voted in 1996 to allow the use of medicinal marijuana. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in June that federal drug laws continue to trump the efforts of states that permit it. Lawyers for medicinal marijuana patients, however, remain hopeful they can still press ahead in the courts because the Supreme Court specifically chose not to address some constitutional issues in this year's case.