By John Woolfolk on 10/28/11
Medical marijuana advocates Friday dropped off 17 boxes full of petitions at San Jose City Hall, bearing what they said was more than enough signatures from city voters to qualify a referendum aimed at repealing the city's new pot club rules.
The activists said that in the last month they raised $200,000 toward the referendum campaign and submitted 48,598 signatures, gathered mostly by paid workers. City Clerk Dennis Hawkins said the activists need 29,653 valid signatures -- 8 percent of the city's registered voters -- to qualify a referendum.
"We've easily surpassed the required number," said James Anthony, chairman of the Citizens Coalition for Patient Care, a group of medical marijuana providers and advocatesformed to repeal the San Jose law, which they say would force the more than 100 pot clubs in the city to close.
"Our message this morning is very simple," Anthony said. "The citizens of San Jose want to repeal and replace this unworkable ordinance."
The San Jose regulations, approved Sept. 27, would limit the number of medical marijuana collectives to 10 -- less than a tenth of the number now believed to operate throughout the city. Approvals would be granted to the first 10 qualified clubs to submit online applications. They would be restricted to certain commercial and industrial zones -- and would be required to grow their marijuana on site rather than obtain it from outside growers.
Pot activists contend that the ruleswould shut them down because they would create gigantic medical marijuana outlets that would invite raids from federal authorities who say the drug is illegal. They said they hope to negotiate changes in the new law with the city to allow more clubs, have them chosen through a bidding process and allow them to obtain marijuana from member growers.
San Jose's referendum drive came amid a federal crackdown on pot dispensaries, mostly in other California cities.
President Barack Obama's Department of Justice had launched a surge in new pot clubs by signaling two years ago that it would tolerate medical marijuana in states that allow it. But federal prosecutors said many clubs are twisting the state's medical pot law and openly dealing drugs for profit.
Former state Sen. John Vasconcellos, a San Jose Democrat who authored a state bill creating a framework for medical marijuana distribution after voters in 1996 made California the first state to allow the drug for the sick, said:
"The people spoke in 1996, and the people have spoken again, saying let us have our medicine."
Hawkins said the signatures will be submitted to the county Registrar of Voters for verification within 30 working days, or about six weeks. If there are enough to qualify a referendum, the city would have 30 days to either repeal the ordinance, put the referendum on the ballot for the next regularly scheduled municipal election or call a special election.
Putting a referendum on the next scheduled ballot could cost $1 million or more, and the bill for a special election could hit $3.4 million, Hawkins said.
Mindful of those costs, the pot activists said they suspended their signature gathering and turned in their petitions a day earlier than required to avoid having the clerk work over the weekend. And they said they would rather work with city leaders to fix the ordinance than have a costly referendum.
City leaders had mixed thoughts on what to do if the referendum qualifies. Mayor Chuck Reed said he'd be happy to let voters decide the matter -- and believes they will shoot it down. "I think it will lose because we've got a reasonable program that we've adopted," Reed said.
He also cautioned the marijuana activists to be careful what they wish for, noting that without the city ordinance none of the clubs are allowed under city zoning -- something a recent appellate court decision has upheld. "If we drop the current ordinance, they're all illegal, and I don't think that's what they want," Reed said.
Councilman Pierluigi Oliverio, who initiated the city effort to draft an ordinance and sponsored a successful marijuana tax measure last November, said the petitions show that city voters support the notion that "patients with a doctor's permission be able to obtain regulated medical cannabis in San Jose." Oliverio said he'd favor working out amendments rather than putting a costly measure on the ballot.
"We should just form a committee of interested parties -- responsible collectives, the district attorney, police, an advocate for patient rights, a nurse or doctor -- and work out all the details," Oliverio said.
Activists have taken similar steps around the state. Butte County officials decided to put a referendum on the June ballot after activists qualified one to repeal pot club and growing limits. San Diego in July repealed zoning and operational limits on pot clubs after activists mounted a successful referendum drive.
Lake County officials also repealed a pot dispensary ban after a successful referendum drive last month. And Kern County officials are still trying to decide what to do after a referendum qualified to repeal a pot club ban.
San Jose's marijuana activists were aided by the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5, which represents 500 local employees and has organized some working at marijuana clubs. The union helped gather signatures and contributed $5,000 toward the referendum campaign.
Steve Kline, a neighborhood activist in Oliverio's district, said he signed the petition because city leaders botched the pot regulations. "This isn't the right approach," Kline said. "We need to make things work here."
By John Woolfolk on 10/28/11