Politics & Government

For pot, politics remain local in California


Medical marijuana dispensaries are outlawed in the Southern California city of Santa Ana, but that hasn’t stopped pot shops from flourishing.

Officials estimate there are at least 60 doing business, even though the city has repeatedly gone to court, issued fines, cut off water and power to storefronts, and called in federal drug agents and local police to enforce the ban.

This fall, like several other cities and counties in California, Santa Ana is trying a new tactic for regulating pot – the ballot box. Recognizing its losing battle against weed, the Santa Ana City Council is asking voters to consider a measure that would allow pot dispensaries under strict operating rules.

The proposal came after medical marijuana activists seeking to end the prohibition on shops qualified a much more liberal initiative for the city ballot.

Voters in Alaska and Oregon will decide next week whether their states should follow Washington and Colorado in legalizing recreational use of marijuana. And Californians might see a similar measure on the state ballot in 2016.

But for now, the politics of pot remain local in California.

At least 13 cities and counties stretching from Oroville to Encinitas have a combined 17 measures on general election ballots next week that seek to sort out where and how marijuana may be grown and sold.

“We felt it was important to respond in some way, and the question became, do we respond with a competing initiative that would allow dispensaries but heavily regulate them or do we respond with an initiative that would continue to ban them in a way that wasn’t really working,” said Karen Haluza, interim executive director of the Santa Ana Planning and Building Agency. “The city’s hand was forced at that point.”

In Northern California, voters in Butte and Lake counties also face dueling ballot measures. In those rural pot-growing jurisdictions, cultivation, not pot shops, is the issue.

Responding to complaints that large-scale medical marijuana farms were fueling crime and harming the environment, lawmakers in both counties passed ordinances banning outdoor growing on small properties and restricting the size of grows on larger ones.

Frustrated growers and users are seeking to repeal the laws by ballot referenda and to replace them with more beneficial rules.

“Locals are more and more realizing they need to zone for these activities, both dispensaries and farms, and they are sometimes doing so in ways that aren’t acceptable to the people that live there and it’s really bringing them out of the woodwork or the hills, so to speak,” said Ellen Komp, deputy director of the California branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

In Butte County, it took activists less than a month to register several thousand new voters and gather more than 12,000 signatures – about 4,300 more than they needed – to get the referendum on growing limits on the ballot.

The measures are being considered after lawmakers failed for the fifth year in a row to agree on a way to give the state authority to regulate the state’s sizable medical marijuana industry.

In 1996, California became the first state to approve the drug for medical purposes. The state’s pot laws remain the nation’s most liberal, allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana for almost any ailment and giving local government broad discretion in how to implement the regulations.

More than 200 cities and counties have responded by banning dispensaries or imposing limits on where marijuana can be grown, but in the past few years, pot activists have been challenging those limits at election time. Along with Santa Ana, the cities of La Mesa and Encinitas also will be voting on Nov. 4 to overturn local dispensary bans.

“It’s amazing that for 18 years we haven’t been able to figure it out,” said Kandice Hawes, a California State University, Fullerton student who is leading the push for the less-restrictive measure in Santa Ana. ”It’s probably the one industry that wants regulation, is asking to be regulated, and can’t get it.”

Seeing a money-making opportunity, officials in Cathedral City, Desert Hot Springs, Santa Cruz and Shasta Lake are asking voters to levy special taxes on pot dispensaries.