Referendums Turning the Tide on Pot Bans 

Medical cannabis activists are increasingly fighting dispensary bans at the ballot box.

Green Berets are an elite military cadre known for working in foreign lands where they build up local fighting forces. Now, California's medical cannabis reform movement has something of its own Green Beret.

His name is Craig Beresh, and he's director of San Diego NORML and president of the California Cannabis Coalition. Beresh is at the center of a series of voter uprisings that are turning the tables on medical marijuana's foes in the battleground counties of inland and Southern California. This fall, medical marijuana activists organized by Beresh have begun wielding a powerful tool to crush bans on dispensaries: the referendum petition drive.

One such drive is underway to overturn a local ban on pot clubs in Kern County. Other drives have already halted San Diego's promised crackdown on clubs as well as an ordinance in Butte County.

Beresh said the will of the people can easily override dumb marijuana laws enacted by politicians, and any county or city in the state can raise similar challenges. More referendums are to come in Fresno and possibly the Bay Area. It's the latest in a fifteen-year battle for safe access to medical cannabis in the state.

California voters exempted qualified medical patients and caregivers from state pot laws in 1996, and then in 2004, voters granted them a right to collectively or cooperatively grow and distribute the plant. The lawfulness of storefront dispensaries is an "unresolved legal question," however, according to documents leaked from the California attorney general's office.

In reality, California medical marijuana law is a lot like Utah liquor law: "Wet" counties like San Francisco and cities like Oakland tax and regulate clubs while "dry" counties like San Diego and Santa Clara ban them and raid them. Americans for Safe Access says there are 161 city bans and 17 county bans in the state.

But many of the bans are failing to stop clubs from opening. This year, San Diego attempted to zone clubs out of existence. In response, a coalition of San Diego dispensaries that Beresh helped organize created a legal fund and gathered 47,126 signatures to put a recall of the ordinance to a citywide vote. "How it works is if a county [or city] passes a ban, you have thirty days in which to get this certified amount of signatures required to throw it on the ballot," Beresh explained.

There can be dozens of clubs in any given county fighting for the right to exist. Beresh said he gets besieged clubs as well as patients and other health organizations to each chip in about $1,000 to $2,000 for signature-gathering efforts. "I just say, 'You have the right to do this. The voters have spoken. Is it worth one or two thousand dollars to stay in business? If you are all together, we can do this.'"

Beresh deploys paid, professional signature gatherers, because, he said, "patients don't do well collecting signatures." Once signatures are verified, pot club bans are suspended immediately until voters have their say in an election.

But the mere cost of a special election can deter most cash-strapped city councils and county supervisory boards. The San Diego city council ordinance has since been repealed, and the mayor has pledged not to raid clubs, Beresh said. "Once it was on the ballot, they backed down."

Beresh simultaneously assisted clubs in Butte County in the Central Valley. Dispensaries there hired paid signature-gatherers to get 12,000 names to overturn a new ban. The gatherers collected 20,000.

Then Beresh turned his attention to Kern County, where supervisors passed an urgency ordinance to ban clubs and limit growing to twelve cannabis plants per parcel. Beresh sat with a group of collectives to initiate a referendum, and he expects them to gather enough signatures in time. "They're more than on track," he said. "They're over-track."

Beresh said about half the states in America have laws that allow residents of cities and counties to challenge local ordinances at the ballot box, but it's a rarely used tool. In Kern County, the clerk of eighteen years had to look up and study the referendum process, as the county has never had one, he said.

Kern County officials, however, are forging ahead with their ban, and if a referendum to overturn it goes to a vote of the people, it could cost the broke county about $1 million. "I told [the supervisors], 'If you take it to the election it will cost no less than $500,000, and more in the realm of a million dollars, and with a special election it goes to two or three million,'" Beresh said. "Their faces turned white."

Beresh, a longtime organizer and former marketer, said he only goes where he's invited. "It's up to the community itself," he said. "They have to want to do it. I can't just walk into a community and say, 'We're doing a referendum.' It doesn't happen that way."

He said Southern and inland California patients are sick of being persecuted. "There are strong communities out there, it's just a matter of getting in there and pulling them together."

He is also closely watching a major Bay Area county where citizens overwhelmingly approved a tax on clubs with 78.33 percent of the vote. That tax has brought in a reported $1.25 million since March, yet the city council in the county's largest city is at work on shutting down the industry. "I have my eyes squarely on San Jose," Beresh said.

Seeds & Stems

A second California pot initiative — the Repeal Cannabis Prohibition Act of 2012 — has been filed with the state. It would allow adults to legally possess up to three pounds of pot and grow a ten-by-ten-foot garden. Sponsors include Berkeley physician Dr. Frank Lucido and attorney William Panzer, co-author of Prop 215.

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