Marijuana Advocates Strip City Council of Legislative Victory

 Article and Photos By Esther Rubio-Sheffrey

“I fought the law and the law won,” Joe Strummer sang in the late ‘70s when the Clash covered the famous rock n’ roll anthem. Generally, those lyrics tend to ring true. NUG’s previous coverage of the battle between medicinal marijuana advocates and city hall ended with a victorious city council leaving city chambers while a handful of activists linked arms and sang “We Shall Over Come” in protest.

On April 12th, the city council voted 5-2 in favor of enacting two land use ordinances that would effectively ban marijuana dispensaries citywide, forcing over 160 co-ops to close their doors and push any new dispensaries to industrial areas in the city’s outskirts. Before city officials could enact such policies, however, thousands of patients and more than 60 medical marijuana co-ops came together, raised almost $150,000, and gathered more than 46,000 signatures in order to qualify a referendum seeking the repeal of the ordinances.

“Sometimes you can be in awe with democracy. The system, thank goodness, sometimes works really well,” Councilmember David Alvarez said at the July 25th meeting. “In this case, the system has worked well. The council enacted an ordinance that the people of San Diego clearly refute and do not accept. It is the intent of people who are the patients, advocates, and those who participated in this referendum process to enact an ordinance that provides for regulation and for some control going forward.”

Alvarez made the motion to repeal the ordinances and added, “I hope we can revisit this issue and enact an ordinance that includes all San Diegans and is fair to all the people who are impacted by this.”

Fighting the Law
In the aftermath of the first vote in favor of the ordinances in March, it was clear to a handful of people that the city was leaning towards a ban. Two organizations, the Patient Care Association of California (PCACA) and Citizens for Patients Rights (CPR), were created to mount a legal response.

On the condition of anonymity, a PCACA founding member shared that he and the other co-op managers and owners felt that no one was representing their economic interest. By the time the city council voted in April, the PCACA had more than 60 members with the objective of representing a singular, authoritative voice. Together, as of June 24th, their co-ops serve 46,504 verified patients. Many of those patients are CPR members and helped to mount an aggressive campaign against the proposed ban.

Armed with the knowledge that if they could obtain 31,029 valid voter signatures within 45 days, they had a legal and democrat way of fighting back against the ordinances, the PCACA and CPR quickly raised close to $150,000 through individual donations and four sponsors, one of which is San Diego’s weekly Reader. With those funds, among other things, the La Jolla Group, a professional signature-gathering firm, was hired to tally the official number of signatures collected. Another PCACA member, who requested to be referred to as Pat (out of concerns that he would be targeted by law enforcement officials because the dust has yet to settle on the issue of marijuana’s legality), said their intent was not to defy local government, but to prevent what they perceive as unfair ordinances from being enacted.

“We want to work with [the city] in finding a solution that works for everyone,” Pat said. “On behalf of the patients and on behalf of the laws we set up in this state for those patients, we felt taking action just made plain sense, as standing up for rights usually does. I am extremely proud of the work I have done with the [PCACA.] I almost cried on the last day we got the official signature tally.”

While most people were enjoying the start of their Memorial Day weekend, the PCACA and CPR submitted 46,141 verified signatures to the city clerk. Confident their signatures would qualify, advocates knew the city council would have to do one of two things: repeal the ordinances, or let the public decide the ordinances’ fate through a vote. It was as much a celebration as it was a legal maneuver.

City law dictates that if a referendum qualifies, and the council decides to put the matter up for a vote, they must do so within 11 months of the signature verification date. Submitting signatures on May 27th was crucial because San Diego’s next election takes place June 2012, and that left a small enough gap to force the council to call for a special election; a move that could have cost our cash-strapped city an estimated $3.7 million.

However, in June, the city attorney’s office, citing state law rather than San Diego’s municipal code, allotted the city clerk an additional 30 days to verify the signatures. Although the city clerk did not use the full 30 days, this move saved the council from having to call for a special election and would have allowed for them to put the issue up for a vote during the June primary. Although not as expensive as a special election, the city clerk’s office estimated that placing the ordinances on the June primary could cost up to $841,000, if not more. Using a more conservative estimate of $745,000, the PCACA estimated that instead of using funds for an election, the city could pay annual salaries to 23.5 librarians, 19 firefighters, and 15 police officers.

The PCACA and CPA members also put out numerous figures on the effects that closing dispensaries would have on employment, safe access, local and state revenue taxes, and, not to mention, the numerous lawsuits in which the city would be forced to defend its ordinances. Their efforts, and those of the thousands of supporters, were successful.

A stereotype often bestowed upon “stoners” is that they are lazy and would rather get high than do something about anything. Yet, in the 103 days between the vote that approved the ordinances and their repeal on July 25th, marijuana advocates game together in an unprecedented manner, demonstrating to city officials that the marijuana community is capable of organizing, raising funds, and, more importantly, that there are many voters among them.

The Battle Continues
As the council members briefly addressed the public before casting their vote; no one shared Alvarez’s enthusiasm for the democratic process, or his hopefulness that a future compromise would be possible. In fact, many sounded downright irritated at having their decision challenged.

While Alvarez attempted to control his puzzled look, Todd Gloria called the entire process discouraging. “I have severe doubts that this council will be able to reach a compromise on the issue, and there will be unintended consequences to this referendum. I hope for a better result, but I am not optimistic that there will be one,” Gloria said.

Sherri Lightner had plenty of questions for the city attorney regarding whether or not the council would be free to enact a ban, or, at the very least, place a moratorium on new permits until a decision could be reached. The city attorney and the city clerk both clarified that repealing the ordinances would mean no similar ordinance could be enacted for at least a year, but that a ban, in legal jargon, would be different. However, a ban and/or a moratorium would have to be voted on by the council.

“I find this whole situation frustrating,” Lightner said. “Council staff worked long and hard to craft a compromise that allowed for safe access while protecting our neighborhoods and our children. The ordinance that this council approved struck that balance and was the best solution available. I worry that this is less about safe access for those who truly need medical marijuana and more about a big growing business that wants to be unfettered by common sense rules. The problem with going to the ballot on this issue is that it would provide no clarity whatsoever.” With that, she reluctantly cast her vote in favor to repeal.

Carl DeMaio, who was absent from the April vote, but was one of two votes against the ordinances in March, pretty much took the opportunity to lecture both sides. Despite testimony from several of the 56 people who addressed the council and asked for regulation that did not eliminate safe access, DeMaio began by saying, “We have two camps. People who want very restrictive regulations, if not a complete ban, on medical marijuana dispensaries, and those who want fun and fancy free no regulation.” Many in the council chambers booed, forcing Council President Young to restore order.

DeMaio, like Lightner, went on to explain that letting the public vote on the ordinances would only cause confusion. Some voters, he argued, would vote against the ordinances because they feel it would not go far enough. Sounding much like a mayoral candidate, he went on to state a number of concerns, “If we don’t come up with some sort of safeguard, we’re going to be right back to where we are today; with no rules, no guidebook, no way to regulate, no way to do enforcement, no way to protect the public interest. This is not a victory for one side or another, this really sets us back.”

Marti Emerald and Young, on the other hand, both felt it should be up to the voters. “I understand that this is more restrictive than what some of the people who originally came to us had wanted, but as a city council, we’re not here just to pass ordinances or to do what we want,” Emerald said, stopping to also defend the ordinances, stating they have taken the needs of every community member into consideration. “If we take it to the ballot, we spend money; but, we have an opportunity to find out what the people of San Diego really think,” she added. “31,000 verified signatures are a lot, but there are more than 600,000 registered voters in the city. We [should] allow the voters to be heard.”

Young added that he did not want the council to set a precedent that would not give a large portion of citizens their right to vote. Nevertheless, with 6 to 2 in favor of repeal, the council cast their votes while many of the advocates in the chambers stood and clapped.

Round Two: The Battle Continues
The council is on legislative leave until Sept. 12th, so at the moment no negotiations have begun. Meanwhile, the mayor has stated that he is not against medical marijuana, but his office refuses to help in the legislative process. Since the repeal, many have expressed an interest in re-establishing the Medical Marijuana Task Force to help enact legislation moving forward. Organizers sought the mayor’s participation as well as that of law enforcement officials, but those requests were denied.

“Based on the mayor’s philosophy, he feels that the city council, working with city planners, along with input from affected citizens as well as dispensary operators, can formulate a plan that can address everybody’s needs,” Ron Lacey said on behalf of the mayor’s office. Evidently, Sanders has not read the council meetings or, perhaps, is simply counting on the fact that he will soon be out of office.

For the moment, co-ops continue to provide safe access for marijuana patients, even though many city officials clearly stated that they are operating illegally under current zoning issues.  It remains to be seen, though, whether District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, who, like DeMaio, is running for mayor, will support raids and prosecute offenders while things remain in limbo. It is clear, however, that the battle between marijuana’s legality and America’s finest is far from over, but July 25th was most definitely a victory for marijuana advocates.

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