Local News

Wednesday, Sep 21 2011 07:00 PM

Marijuana petition drive blocks Kern County ban

BY JAMES BURGER Californian staff writer jburger@bakersfield.com

Opponents of a Kern County ordinance that would outlaw storefront medical marijuana cooperatives and the sale of edible pot products have blocked the law from taking effect.

The Kern County Elections Division on Wednesday verified that Kern Citizens for Patients' Rights had collected 17,350 valid signatures from registered Kern County voters. That's the number required to block the bans.

Elections workers reached the 17,350 number Wednesday and stopped counting. About 2,662 of the original 26,326 signatures submitted remained uncounted, a cushion of support Kern Citizens didn't need.

Kern Citizens President Heather Epps anticipated a jubilant group meeting Wednesday evening.

"I'm ecstatic. I'm excited to tell everyone the news," she said. "This is awesome."

She said the effort to block the county ordinance was successful because people who were formerly hesitant to be publically active were galvanized by supervisors' decision to outlaw cooperatives.

"There's a lot of people who were like me who were afraid to step forward," she said.

But signing a petition isn't that tough.

"People are tired of being told what to do -- being told 'Do what I say, not what I do,'" Epps said.

GOING FORWARD

Now it is up to the Kern County Board of Supervisors, which approved the county law unanimously Aug. 9, to decide how to proceed. It will take up the issue Tuesday.

Supervisors can repeal their ordinance.

Or they can place the question of whether cooperatives should be banned before county voters in a special election or during the June 2012 primary.

Supervisor Mike Maggard, board chairman, said the board could "withdraw the ordinance and introduce an ordinance that is legally" acceptable or send the issue to a public vote.

He wasn't sure which option he will support, but said the county must somehow deal with the problem of cooperatives.

"What we have now is not working and we need to find something that works," Maggard said. "What do we do to deal with these dispensaries if they are going to continue to exist?"

If supervisors send the issue to a vote, their ordinance would remain frozen until the election and cooperatives would remain legal in the county's jurisdiction -- generally areas outside the city limits of the county's municipalities.

HISTORY

Regulating medical marijuana facilities has troubled Kern County since California voters exempted medical use of the drug from criminal prosecution by passing the Compassionate Use Act in 1996.

Supervisor Ray Watson noted that Kern County voters rejected the Act.

County supervisors first tried to limit the number of storefront operations -- which then operated as for-profit businesses -- in the county to six. Then, after some of the businesses were prosecuted by federal agents and Sheriff Donny Youngblood refused to issue permits to organizations that remained illegal under federal law, the county removed all limits on the operations.

The storefront operations, now set up as nonprofits, flourished and multiplied. In 2010 supervisors put a moratorium on the establishment of new cooperatives and asked Kern County Counsel Theresa Goldner to develop a new ordinance to regulate the nonprofits after they identified at least 22 cooperatives in the county.

In August Goldner's office brought back ordinances to limit the number of plants that can be cultivated and banned storefront cooperatives and the sale of marijuana edibles.

BAN AND BATTLE

On Aug. 9,supervisors passed a 12-plant limit on the amount of medical marijuana that can be cultivated on a parcel of land. They used an emergency ordinance to create the law, causing it to take effect immediately and sparking a wave of raids on marijuana grows by Kern County sheriff's deputies.

That law has been challenged by a lawsuit. A preliminary ruling on whether to suspend the ordinance pending the outcome of the case is soon expected from Kern County Superior Court Judge David Lampe.

Also on Aug. 9, supervisors approved the ban on storefront cooperatives and the sale of marijuana edibles. But that rule didn't take effect until one month after the decision.

That gave ordinance opponents the chance to gather signatures for a voter referendum. They registered 5,933 new voters and raced to collect the 17,350 signatures.

On Sept. 8, the day before the ordinance was to take effect, Kern Citizens for Patients' Rights submitted 26,326 signatures against the ordinance to the county, which temporarily stopped the ordinance from taking effect.

Elections workers then spent nearly two weeks making sure enough valid signatures existed on petition documents to send the ordinance back to supervisors.

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