California medical pot backers drop ballot plan for regulatory scheme

Published: Friday, Mar. 9, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3A

Medical marijuana advocates are dropping efforts to qualify a November ballot initiative to regulate California's dispensary industry and instead plan a media campaign to lobby the Legislature to tackle the issue.

Cannabis industry groups including dispensaries, medical marijuana growers and a powerful union drafted the proposed measure in the face of an ongoing federal crackdown on California's $1.5 billion medicinal pot trade.

But a top campaign director said initiative planners instead have decided to run television and radio ads to urge lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown to enact rules governing how medical marijuana outlets operate in the state.

"We're not doing the initiative. We're pulling the plug on it," said Dan Rush, director of the Medical Cannabis and Hemp Division for the United Food and Commercial Workers, which has been organizing California pot workers for the past two years.

Rush said Thursday that he had secured $1.2 million in pledges, mostly from the dispensary industry, toward $2 million to gather signatures for a November initiative.

But with time running out and other major funders undecided over whether to pursue a ballot or legislative strategy, Rush said initiative backers decided to take their case to the Capitol instead. He said the money pledged to date will be used for "a full-on media campaign," including lobbying and likely television and radio spots this summer.

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, has introduced legislation seeking to accomplish many aims of the ballot initiative, the proposed Medical Marijuana Regulation, Control and Taxation Act.

Ammiano's Assembly Bill 2312 would create a Board of Medical Marijuana Enforcement under the state Department of Consumer Affairs to approve or deny permits for dispensaries and oversee medical marijuana cultivation, transportation, distribution and sales.

The Ammiano bill also includes a provision in the proposed initiative to mandate that cities and counties permit one dispensary for every 50,000 residents unless local voters approve local ordinances to ban them.

But the Ammiano bill scraps plans for a 2.5 percent statewide tax on medical marijuana businesses in favor of provisions allowing local governments to impose a one-quarter percent to 2 percent tax on medicinal pot transactions.

"They were not going to get a tax passed in Sacramento," said Dale Gieringer, California director of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Even a regulatory measure for marijuana could prove a tough sell to lawmakers, many of whom are skittish about being portrayed as pro-dispensary.

The proposed ballot initiative came together after California's four U.S. attorneys announced charges Oct. 7 against targeted dispensaries, growers and financial speculators in the medical marijuana market and threatened pot business landlords with seizures of properties.

Backers of the initiative were up against a June deadline to gather a half-million valid voter signatures to qualify the measure.

"I always felt it was an uphill battle because we started so late," Gieringer said.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Peter Hecht



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