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Sonoma's City Council puts the ‘discretion’ in discretionary funds


The Sonoma City Council at its Sept. 19 meeting approved an allocation of $1,500 from its “discretionary funds” to cover the cost of the rental of the Sebastiani Theatre next month for a screening and post-film discussion of an apparently anti-marijuana documentary at a time when city officials are weighing whether to loosen the city’s current prohibitions on cannabis in light of last year’s passing of Proposition 64, which legalized recreational marijuana.

And in the words of commenter Tom Conlon at the meeting: “It just struck me as odd to have the council be (pledging funding) to that.”

The film, “The Other Side of Marijuana: Negative Effects of Marijuana on Our Youth,” will be hosted by RISK Sonoma, the nonprofit parent group with the laudable mission of raising awareness about the importance of mitigating drug use among Valley teens.

While the council was in unanimous support of the funding, others joined Conlon in raised eyebrows.

Georgia Kelly, a director of a nonprofit herself and no fan of in-city pot dispensaries, cautioned that funding “an advocacy program like this could get the council in some trouble.”

“I do think it might be setting a precedent for other nonprofits to look to the Council for funding for when they want to put on a program,” said Kelly.

While council members David Cook and Amy Harrington both said the vote should not be viewed as setting any precedent, one would imagine another unanimously approved allocation of $1,500 would be in order if cannabis advocates wanted to host a community screening of, say, “Grass,” the acclaimed 1999 documentary (narrated by Woody Harrelson, natch) that sought to debunk the myths and fear mongering around marijuana.

Similar allocations for “Reefer Madness” and “Half Baked” probably aren’t in the cards.

The impetus to keep youth away from marijuana goes without saying – and that’s clearly where the council’s heart was in funding the screening. But good intentions don’t necessarily lead to balanced information – which can sometimes be a problem with documentaries advocating a particular point of view.

I haven’t seen “The Other Side of Marijuana,” and can’t speak to the veracity about what it says about the “negative effects of marijuana on our youth” – of which there are no doubt many. Neither, apparently, can any of the Council members, none of whom screened the film prior to funding it.

The online trailer for the film is provocative. It presents a series of commenters offering frightening visions of the effects of increasingly THC-heavy cannabis. In less than four minutes we hear: “There’s a risk of psychosis,” “dangerous,” “activates psychosis (which) may or may not be reversible,” “psychotic break,” “the development of psychosis and schizophrenia,” “clients hearing voices, seeing things other people don’t see,” “schizophrenia,” “psychotic disorder,” “they can develop a psychotic illness.” (Many of the sources in the film work in the recovery field and certainly see extreme cases.)

One man recalls that, “ever since I took my first puff I basically became addicted.” A younger man says “a hit of pot” drove him to fits of terror. One of the experts in the film, Kenneth Stoller, a doctor of hyperbaric medicine (the field that treats divers with the bends), says marijuana rearranges one’s “neuronal network.”

Of course, these are all descriptions of extreme reactions to cannabis – not unheard of, but also not typical. (While a higher percentage of psychosis sufferers are also marijuana users, a causal link between marijuana and psychosis has never been established, according to most online sources.)

Council members said at the meeting, and in follow-up emails, that given the city’s upcoming decisions about how to regulate recreational marijuana, it’s a logical time for the city to fund a nonprofit informational event on the subject. In fact, the opposite is the case – the time to publicly fund a cautionary program about the dangers of marijuana was before the council took up the issue – rendering it, as Kelly describes above, an advocacy program.

The cautions of RISK Sonoma are very valid – local law enforcement officials say the use of opioids and other drugs is on the rise in the Valley. Keeping them out of the hands of kids has to be a priority as Sonoma moves into the post-Prop. 64 world. But the time to put taxpayer money toward its cannabis event was prior to this month when the city began workshopping a cannabis ordinance and such events took the appearance of “positions” on the matter. Cautioning Sonoma about effects of marijuana on youth is one thing – cautioning Sonoma about allowing legal dispensaries is another. And that line can easily be blurred.

Put it this way, during the debate over banning leaf blowers, would the council have funded $1,500 toward a film about the negative health consequences of too much Husqvarna dust in the air? What if, during considerations of last year’s revised smoking ordinance, the vaping industry wanted to screen an educational film about how vaping can help cigarette smokers kick tobacco? Or, the year before, if fluoride opponents planned a film about the dangers of fluoride to local youth?

Those could surely be described as informational events, and the health and wellness of youth were part of all those debates.

One wonders if the council will be similarly generous with pro-cannabis groups who step forward with an event advocating for cancer sufferers.

Perhaps they will. Either way, I have a feeling we’re going to find out.

Check out “The Other Side of Cannabis,” scheduled for Nov. 13 at the Sebastiani Theatre. Panel discussion to follow.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.