Separated from the Bay Area by mountains and bordered by ocean and greenery, the city of 56,000 is known for its edgy politics, feisty independence and uncommon sense of place. But this fall residents are engaged in a fierce debate over two voter initiatives on the ballot. One would all but legalize pot smoking, and the other would create a local minimum wage law. Both have some Santa Cruz progressives wondering if the city is carrying this "island thing" too far.
Even the avowed socialist on the city council worries about the city pretending that California's drug laws and the laws of economics don't apply to Santa Cruz.
"It's one thing to be unique and edgy, but I don't want the city to be seen as totally wacky," said veteran city Councilman Mike Rotkin.
The marijuana initiative would require police to make pot arrests their lowest priority. If the proponents have their way, criminal arrests and citations for marijuana possession and even sales on private property would drop off the police radar.
Ed Porter, one of the city council's most liberal members, has come out swinging against the proposal, also opposed by police and drug treatment agencies.
"Instead of Surf City, we'll become Marijuana City," said Porter, a teacher at Santa Cruz High. "I just think it's a stupid idea to make it possible for everyone in town to become stoners.
Under the proposal, police
could still give priority to crimes involving the sale and distribution to minors; the sale, cultivation or use of marijuana on public property; and driving under the influence of marijuana.
But critics say the proposed law doesn't define the "acceptable" amount of pot Santa Cruzans can sell out of their homes. "Almost every backyard in the city could become a safe house for growing and selling marijuana," City Attorney John Barisone said.
"If a police officer was walking down Pacific Avenue and saw someone selling marijuana in a private parking lot while he could have been apprehending a jaywalker a half a block away, he'd technically be violating the ordinance if he went after the drug dealer," Barisone added.
Proponents say the lawyers and cops are overreacting and that they'd prefer to "tax and regulate" the sale of legal marijuana, but that state and federal laws prevent that from happening.
"We can't change the law, but we can make it so the police aren't coming into a private setting and arresting people," said Andrea Tischler, co-owner of the nation's first "bed, bud and breakfast inn." Located in downtown Santa Cruz, the six-year-old Compassion Flower Inn welcomes guests who smoke marijuana for medical purposes.
Kate Horner, a 24-year-old Santa Cruz resident who is running the Measure K campaign, said that a similar law in Seattle has driven down marijuana arrests while not resulting in any measurable increase in pot smoking.
The owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz is among a group of left-leaning business leaders who dismiss the proposed minimum-wage law as "Cruzenomics" and a threat to Santa Cruz's small businesses.
Other progressives, however, argue that it's time for Santa
Cruzans to stand up for higher wages.
"There's a million reasons people are making up not to pass our own minimum-wage law, but we should do it simply because it's the decent thing to do," said Nora Hochman, leader of the campaign to raise the minimum to $9.25 an hour beginning in January. That translates to $19,240 a year at 40 hours a week.
For a family of four, Hochman said, that's still below the federal poverty line. Even for a single person, she said, getting by on that wage could be difficult since Santa Cruz is one of the least affordable places to live in the country.
If Measure G passes, Santa Cruz's minimum wage would be 23 percent higher than California's minimum, which rises to $7.50 in January. Santa Cruz workers would also get cost-of-living wages.
Most locally owned businesses have pummeled the proposal, saying it will make it harder for them to compete against chain stores such as Longs Drugs and Borders Books, which can spread out their increased costs over a region or a nation.
Only a handful of Santa Cruz businesses including the Saturn Cafe, famous for its "Impeach Bush Fries"have endorsed the plan.
Most Santa Cruz business people say they would support raising California's minimum wage to $9.25 an hour. But they say that creating an "island economy" would force marginal businesses to close and make others raise prices.
A handful of cities around the country mostly big cities such as San Francisco and Washington, D.C. have their own minimum-wage laws. "But this is an instantaneous and very large increase in just one small city," said Cindy Geise of Ristorante Avanti. "That's a really flawed concept."
Restaurants, she said, stand to suffer more than other businesses. Geise said the new law "would cost me about $35,000 in wages the first year and all of that would go to the servers that already make 25-plus an hour" when tips are included.
But Arsineh Vartanian of Santa Cruz, a 26-year-old waitress who earns minimum wage plus tips, objects to the notion that servers are rolling in dough.
"Businesses are always threatened and always fearful that they're going to go under," said Vartanian, who preferred not to say where she waits tables. "But somehow it never happens."
Santa Cruz police scoff at the notion that pot use can be accurately measured. And they're scratching their heads about why the measure is needed in the first place, since under California law marijuana possession is dealt with as harshly as a traffic violation.Police are also infuriated by a provision that would make them document and defend the 200 or so marijuana citations they hand out each year before an *oversight committee.*
It's nothing more than a mechanism for harassment of police, said Lt. Steve Clark. It's aimed at stopping us from doing what we're sworn to do.
Police also feel the law would prevent them from issuing marijuana citations as a tool to discourage loitering and other behavior that threatens public safety.
Can't people see the incongruence of a city with such a large drug and alcohol problem making it easier for people to use drugs? Clark said. This would just send a message that it's OK for our kids to do drugs.
But Horner argued that arresting and citing otherwise law-abiding citizens for smoking pot is a waste of police resources and clogs the criminal justice system.
Tischler urged the police to lighten up.
This is Santa Cruz, she said with a laugh. We're not on this planet.
Peter Lewis, an Ohio billionaire who wants to see pot legalized, has bankrolled the measure, along with similar measures in Santa Monica and Santa Barbara.
Neal Coonerty, the Santa Cruz County supervisor-elect who a few years ago led the "Keep Santa Cruz Weird" bumper sticker campaign, agrees with that notion. And he backs the pot initiative.