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California voters may have spoken on recreational marijuana in November, but rather than settling the issue, that vote has set the stage for several local battles over whether to allow marijuana operations.
Because Proposition 64 passed last fall, state licensing to marijuana businesses is slated to begin Jan. 1, 2018 — though local jurisdictions have the power to forbid them in their boundaries.
That has teed up a new set of pot-related efforts, from a group seeking to overturn the County Board of Supervisors’ ban to cities softening their stances on marijuana in the face of voter petition drives.
In March, the County Board of Supervisors banned new recreational and medical cannabis operations in unincorporated areas of the county, while phasing out existing medical marijuana dispensaries. Yet the matter could be headed for a public vote.
The Southern California Responsible Growers Council is exploring a 2018 ballot initiative that would give the green light to pot farms and medical marijuana dispensaries. Specifics are still being hammered out, said Adrian Kwiatkowski, the executive director of the group, which includes farmers feeling the pinch of rising labor and water costs.
“You have the voters of the county saying one thing, and the supervisors saying something else,” Kwiatkowski said. Recreational marijuana shops aren’t part of the initiative because they’re more likely to be targeted should the federal government crack down on cannabis, he said.
In the county, only San Diego, Lemon Grove and La Mesa have ordinances allowing medical marijuana dispensaries. San Diego is alone in having cleared a path for recreational cannabis sales.
Prop. 64 pertained to recreational marijuana, but its broad voter support has also prompted a renewed push in recent months for medical cannabis dispensaries. That includes in Vista, where the medical marijuana industry and the City Council have dueling dispensary plans.
The group Vistans for Better Community Access will soon gather signatures for a ballot measure that would allow up to 10 medical marijuana dispensaries. An alternative proposal from the council would permit a maximum of two dispensaries and place tighter restrictions on where they can open.
The Council, which was staunchly opposed to dispensaries until the petition came along, has argued it put forth a plan to retain local control.
Vince Duffy, a Sacramento-based campaign consultant who’s leading the initiative campaign, said two dispensaries aren’t enough to meet patient demand.
This will be the group’s second time collecting signatures. More than 7,000 signatures submitted earlier this year — enough to qualify for the ballot — were invalidated because of a paperwork error. Now, the group is aiming to put the measure before voters in four to five months, said Duffy.
Craig Balben, president of North Coastal Prevention Coalition — a nonprofit that educates on drug and alcohol abuse — said the marijuana industry too often turns to the ballot box instead of compromising on regulations.
“My experience has shown me that the industry is not necessarily willing to work on any regulations. They want to force their will on cities,” Balben said. He also expressed concern over dispensaries increasing teen access.
“We don’t want to be against marijuana for the sake of being against marijuana. It has nothing to do with just being prohibitionists,” he said. “We want to collaborate and work together and figure out what are good public health policies and what are good regulations.”
Scott Chipman, head of the anti-legalization group San Diegans for Safe Neighborhoods, said residents are increasingly concerned over marijuana and want to lend the group a hand.
But Chipman fears that the message of groups against cannabis will be drowned out by a marijuana industry that appears to be growing more powerful.
“We will try to inform by showing up at city council meetings, county supervisor meetings and planning group meetings,” he said.
Oceanside, too, is re-evaluating its stance on cannabis after facing a medical marijuana ballot measure, which is on hold. Last month, the Council set up an ad hoc committee to study cultivation, distribution and sales of marijuana. The committee will report back to the full Council in five months with options for regulations.
Councilman Jerry Kern sits on the ad hoc committee and suggested forming it, even though he voted against Prop 64.
Kern said given Oceanside’s support of Prop 64, maintaining the city ban runs the risk of a ballot initiative that would limit the city’s say on the number of dispensaries and their locations.
“The problem with ballot-box initiatives or ballot-box zoning is that the city loses all control,” Kern said. “We want to get out ahead of this.”
Kern said he’s also heard from struggling farmers who are interested in growing cannabis. It’s a similar story in Encinitas, where a council subcommittee is exploring marijuana cultivation in hopes of saving what’s left of the flower industry.
The local group Oceanside for a Safer Community earlier this year planned a measure to potentially allow up to 10 dispensaries. David Newman of the group said it hit the pause button on the initiative to work with the ad-hoc committee on regulations. He added that the group is prepared to resume the initiative if the Council again denies medical dispensaries.
Hezekiah Allen is the executive director of the California Growers Association, which also wants to end the Board of Supervisors’ ban on cultivation. Allen said ballot measures tend to be costly and divisive, but an initiative may be the only route given the board’s repeated opposition.
“Whenever you see an imbalance between the voters and the elected officials, I think that ballot measures become much more practical and likely, and I think we’ve reached that point in San Diego,” Allen said.
While the potential measure from the Southern California Responsible Growers Council only covers the unincorporated areas, it would go before the entire county for a vote. That seemingly bodes well for the initiative’s chances, considering that more than 57 percent of county residents backed Prop 64.
“Looking at the voter data, it’s a sea change in cultural attitudes and public opinion,” said Vince Vasquez, an independent elections analyst, regarding Prop. 64 versus a failed 2010 state ballot measure to legalize marijuana.
Beyond local initiatives, the medical marijuana industry plans to flex its muscle in other races.
Phil Rath, executive director of United Medical Marijuana Coalition in San Diego, said the group plans to fundraise for marijuana-friendly candidates in the city of San Diego. The group has yet to determine which candidates it will endorse.
Although San Diego allows dispensaries, Rath said there’s still much to be decided. For instance, the coalition is advocating at the local and state levels that dispensaries be able to sell both medical and recreational marijuana, instead of picking one.
“Our view is that the regulation of the industry is going to be an ongoing conversation,” Rath said.