Not more than a week after officials in Camarillo imposed a ban on medical marijuana dispensaries, Oxnard leaders made a bold move last Tuesday by permitting outlets for the illegal drug to operate publicly within their own city limits.

The unanimous, surprise decision by the City Council followed a short deliberation by council members and staff, where the benefits of the oft-maligned drug, they decided, could offer long-term benefits to a city recently beset by struggles with its image.

Mayor Pro Tem Andres Herrera said his vote is reflective of the city’s motto, keeping in mind those people with critical and terminal illnesses who have medical marijuana prescriptions.

“In Ventura County, we are proud to be ‘The City that Cares,’ ” Herrera said at the meeting. “We care about those Oxnard residents who may be disabled or suffering from cancer. By allowing dispensaries to operate freely in Oxnard, they can have better access to their medical needs.”

“Basically,” added Councilman Bryan MacDonald, “What we’re saying to them is, ‘Smoke ’em if you got ’em.’ ”

Camarillo’s new ordinance imposed a complete, total ban on dispensaries (walk-in storefronts that sell marijuana to people with a doctor’s prescription), and temporary moratoriums are predominant for other cities in Ventura County, with the closest alternative being through a number of home delivery services.

But Oxnard’s ruling revolutionizes access to medicinal marijuana in Ventura County, only seen in the likes of Los Angeles. Now, with dispensaries free to open in the city with the proper licensing, a few have already cropped up in the downtown area.

One, Ganja Joe’s on C Street, carries 42 different blends of cannabis sativa, along with a variety of smoking paraphernalia, black light posters, colorful Persian rugs and “Grow Your Own” seed packages. Owner Joe Hess said that in just his first week of business, customers have spent more than $10,000 in his neon-drenched storefront.

“It’s been high times all around, man,” said Hess, his eyes glazed over. “High times.”

Some of Hess’ more conservative downtown neighbors are none too pleased, however. Jim and Helen Smythe, proprietors of the St. Vincent de Paul Christian Bookstore, frown upon the dispensary’s gaudy aesthetics and emphasis on “fun.” It’s a bad idea all around, says Jim Smythe, because it downplays the medically compassionate image the city aims for, in favor of reckless, recreational drug abuse.

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph, this whole town is going to pot,” he said, “literally.”

Frustrations have mounted at the bookshop since the dispensary moved in. According to Helen Smythe, she’s grown so tired of Hess’ Bob Marley-T-shirt-wearing clientele requesting a book entitled “Jesus was a Hippie” that Smythe has resorted to posting a sign in her front window stating that no such book exists, and not to bother asking for copies of one.

Oxnard police are at a crossroads as well. Although the new ordinance allows marijuana to be obtained for medicinal use, authorities maintain that subversive use of the drug, which still remains illegal in all other forms, contributes to an increase in crime.

David Keith, public information officer for the Oxnard Police Department, said that drug arrests related to marijuana use in Oxnard increased from 3 in 2007, to 14,727 in 2008, to a record-high 627,872 in 2009, more than triple the amount of residents who live in the city. There is less enforcement, too, with 50 fewer officers on the street this year due to departmental layoffs.

“Those numbers don’t mean anything, though,” said Keith.

Much like Oxnard’s recent clampdown on DUI violations, Police Chief John Crombach stated in a press release this week that drug enforcement is top priority for upcoming major public events. Crombach said that he will have every officer available to patrol the Oxnard Salsa and Tamale festivals, both taking place this summer.

Hess frowns upon the increased police presence, saying that tamales and marijuana are “the best combo for a case of the munchies.” He criticized the police department’s stance because he feels his rights as a business owner are being limited, and that the city is denying itself coveted sales tax revenue.

Martin Erickson, the city’s legislative affairs manager, supported Crombach’s statement and said that with a half-cent sales tax increase passed by voters two years ago as Measure O, in 2010 the city stands to net an extra $551,000 from the legal sale of medical marijuana alone.

Erickson’s department has been working closely with consulting firm NDS Research, of Santa Monica, in an attempt to rebrand Oxnard, a city with two court-sanctioned gang injunctions in place. NDS proposed its “Medical Compassionate” image for Oxnard after the blessing of the county Public Health Department on the dispensary legalization.

“It’s common knowledge that medical marijuana provides health benefits that conventional medications cannot for the terminally ill person,” says Michael Powers, Health Care Agency director.

Erickson said it may take some time for the city’s radical new image to catch on. He could not comment if — or when — Oxnard officials intend to change the city’s name or motto, after a series of “iffy” suggestions were submitted in a new 90-day public comment period.

Some of those suggestions that City Council members have already vetoed, according to Erickson, include “The City that Inhales,” “Weed-Nard” and “The Reefer Capital of the World.”   

 This story is one of many in our April Fool’s Day package this week.