Opinion: Don’t allow cannabis festivals in César Chávez Park

City Council members will consider allowing three cannabis events a year, where people can smoke and buy on site. They wouldn’t permit this in other city parks, but they regard César Chávez Park as a dumping ground.

Berkeley City Council wouldn’t dream of staging a cannabis promotion festival in the Rose Garden, or in Codornices Park, or in any other hills park. Why? Because the people who live there — including the ones who consume the herb — don’t want it out in the open. There are kids there, and young families, and respectable folk. And while almost everyone now supports the legal right to light up, not that many people want it pushed in their faces, in the park or in any other public place. They see it, rightly, as a private matter. When the cannabis industry wants to hold a commercial promotional event in a park, no respectable park in the city comes into question.

But César Chávez Park — that apparently is different. Even though most of the council members are too young to remember when the area was literally the city dump, that dump image still sticks in their heads. César Chávez Park: that’s where porta-potties have been good enough for 30 years now. That’s where the city has rules regulating kites but none restricting drones. That’s where dog park boundary signs get vandalized and not repaired because, well, it’s just a dump, so let it go to the dogs.

But César Chávez Park is not a dump. I and others have photographed 87 different kinds of birds there, including the endangered burrowing owl. We’ve documented seven kinds of mammals, and more than 55 varieties of plants. Families with children go here, high school and college students spend time here, and some of Berkeley’s outstanding citizens visit here regularly. If you are ashamed to hold an event in Codornices Park or in James Kenney Park or in Live Oak Park or in Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park, then don’t think about holding it in César Chávez Park.

The City Council will vote March 12 on allowing three cannabis festivals to take place in César Chávez Park each year. People attending would be allowed to smoke cannabis and to buy products while there.

César Chávez would be rolling in his grave at this proposal. He was a strong opponent of marijuana use.

Rashi Kesarwani campaigned on sweet promises to “protect the environment by … ensuring our parks and open spaces are accessible and safe for everyone to enjoy.” César Chávez Park is in her district. But Kesarwani said not a word in opposition to the initial proposal that would turn César Chávez Park into a stoner revel like the one that wrecked San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. As KPIX reported in 2016:

At least 10,000 people gathered to smoke pot on Hippie Hill, despite the park’s smoking ban. Revelers left behind 22,000 pounds of garbage. San Francisco’s parks director said “It’s a mess out here … this will cost the city $100,000 [to clean up] and $30,000 to $50,000 in staff time.”

What message do you want to send about parks? That parks are a place to get fresh air, exercise, enjoy the views and the wildlife, and build up your health? Or that parks are a place to inhale smoke, blow smoke on others, get stoned, drop trash, and tune out?

The cannabis industry today is run by big corporate money. This is not your backyard gardener anymore. If the cannabis industry wants to hold a commercial promotion, fine. Let them rent a hall where the public can choose to attend or not. The Cow Palace comes to mind, or Craneway Pavilion.

Parks are great places for nonprofit public interest festivals like the Kite Festival, the Bahia run, the Breast Cancer race, and others. But commercial promotion circuses don’t belong there. What if Phillip Morris wants to hold a Marlboro smoke-in? Or Juul wants to promote the virtues of vaping? Or if Anheuser-Bush-InBev wants to do a beer festival? Or Pepsi and Coke want to hold a taste-off, with free sodas for everyone? Do those kinds of events belong in the park? The Berkeley City Council seems ready to set a precedent for allowing all of that.

Public health and fire prevention stand behind the ban on smoking in the parks. Public health and public safety are the reason for the ban on alcoholic beverages in the parks. Is the council ready to sacrifice those principles any time some corporation offers 30 pieces of silver?

Marijuana prohibition was a great injustice. But decriminalization is one thing, and the promotion of use is a very different matter. If the City Council endorses an event that promotes cannabis use, as the proposed event plainly intends, the City may be held legally liable for the consequences of use. That’s a slippery slope for a cash-strapped government.

Then there is the moral liability. The message will be clear: the mayor wants you to use marijuana. Rashi wants you to use marijuana. If the “city fathers and mothers” throw their moral authority behind marijuana use, what will you say to the communities of faith, to the teachers and the parents, to the doctors and nurses, to the great majority of straight kids and grownups who are not interested in marijuana use?

Opposing prohibition was progressive. But turning over public parks to big-money private interests to promote the use of mood-altering chemicals doesn’t fit any definition of the term. Promoting the cannabis industry is a political trap. If the mayor wants to commit career suicide and pave the way for a return of the conservatives’ grip on the City Council, there’s no better way than to mainstream the stoner subculture and marginalize the majority.

Martin Nicolaus has been a Berkeley resident since 1992. He writes a daily blog about César Chávez Park at www.chavezpark.org