Politics

Medical marijuana proponent finds a novel way to skirt city bans in OC

Fullerton attorney Randall Longwith, backed by about 75 marijuana sellers and growers, is on a mission to legalize medical marijuana sales in Orange County by forcing cities to introduced regulations using the petition-driven voter initiative.
Fullerton attorney Randall Longwith, backed by about 75 marijuana sellers and growers, is on a mission to legalize medical marijuana sales in Orange County by forcing cities to introduced regulations using the petition-driven voter initiative.
Erika Aguilar/KPCC

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Orange County lawyer Randall Longwith has been hired by about 75 eager medical marijuana growers and suppliers across California to find a way to legitimize medical marijuana in O.C. cities where it is currently illegal.

And he thinks he's found a way to do so: the voter initiative process.

Two years ago, the California State Supreme Court dealt a blow to the medical marijuana community when it upheld a city’s right to ban pot shops, even though state voters approved the 1996 Compassionate Use Act that made medical marijuana use legal in California.

But the ruling left a door open: It said that marijuana proponents who wanted to legalize medical cannabis sales could do so through voter initiative. 

“Usually that’s kind of a throwaway,” said Longwith, a provocative attorney, 45, who has a bit swagger to him. “We took that and said, ‘Well, let’s do it.’”

Longwith first took aim at Santa Ana. He found a resident interested in opening a medical marijuana dispensary and sent petition gatherers to obtain the necessary signatures to put a proposed ordinance on the November 2014 election ballot to permit pot shops.

“We have a right to draft something ourselves," he said. "And in essence, force an election."

And they did.

Last November, Santa Ana residents voted 65.9 percent in favor of permitting and taxing medical marijuana shops. Voters actually chose the city’s competing ordinance over the one Longwith drafted, but that didn’t matter to him: He said patients who genuinely need marijuana will now have safe and public access to it.

After getting medical marijuana regulations passed in Santa Ana, Longwith turned his focus to Costa Mesa. Last year, he qualified a ballot initiative to have voters decide on permitting medical marijuana stores.

Costa Mesa officials have drafted a counter proposal and agreed to put two voter initiatives  on the election ballot, though not until November 2016.

Longwith’s marijuana suppliers and growers argue they’re entitled to a special election, which they want to take place sooner than 2016. Longwith sued the city. An O.C. Superior Court judge on April 16 denied the request to force the Costa Mesa to speed up the process.

But Longwith said he's not finished in Orange County: He has his eyes on San Clemente, Huntington Beach, Anaheim and Garden Grove. And, he added:“We’re not limiting ourselves right now to Orange County."

It's still illegal in most of OC

It’s still illegal to have a marijuana storefront in most Orange County cities.

Even so, hundreds of marijuana businesses operate in OC's shadows, according to Weedmap.com.

In Los Angeles, meanwhile, about 125 medical marijuana shops are recognized by the city under Measure D passed in 2013.

Westminster and Costa Mesa are considering ordinances to permit and tax medical marijuana shops. The cities have held study sessions about it.

For his part, Longwith said he’s not a marijuana user or a patient. But his mother could have been. When he was a teen, she was diagnosed with breast cancer that started in her lymph nodes and ate away at her quickly. Chemotherapy killed her appetite and formed sores in her mouth.

After her death, Longwith said he learned his mother would drive to Chevy Chase Street in Santa Ana, a place where guns and drugs were readily available to buy marijuana.

“My mom had to put her life in jeopardy to use something so she can exist a little bit longer,” Longwith said. “At least before that there was no Compassionate Use Act. Now there is, and people are doing the same thing.”

Medical marijuana proponents argue that legal cannabis sales would generate huge new tax revenues for cities.

But Costa Mesa Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer doesn’t buy it. We’ll break even, he said. “Five, 6, 7 percent ... I don’t care if it’s cigarettes or whatever, when you start to tax things too much, they just go back underground."

He also doubts voters in Orange County really want to smoke marijuana and argues that attorneys like Longwith are more concerned with money.

“You’ve polled it, and you think our community is more Libertarian and/or we look at these issues differently,” he said. “But in the end, this is all about the money. And it is a lot of money.”

2016 will be a pivotal year

Righeimer wants the state to handle medical marijuana dispensary regulations, and he's not alone.

At least four bills  — AB 26, AB 34, AB 266 and SB 643 — are making their way through the California Legislature. They would establish a state medical marijuana division that would license and regulate the marijuana sales, cultivation, transportation, storage and testing.

Jeff Ryan, who owns an auto repair shop next to an alleged marijuana lab, is angry about the fire risk it poses. 

Last month, Westminster police detectives shut down the hash oil marijuana lab in an industrial park that hosts garage-type businesses. Detectives seized approximately 100 pounds of marijuana, a large amount of hash oil and $50,000 in cash, according to a news release.

“What kind of chemicals are coming from them,” Ryan said of his next-door neighbor. “I come here to work, pay my bills and take care of my customers and all my paperwork in here. In one day, somebody can take all of that away from me.”

Ryan supports legal medical marijuana, but not recreational use. He thinks it's inevitable in California, though. But he said finding a way to regulate the shops will be a nightmare.  

Righeimer agrees and said it'll likely be expensive, especially for cities that aren't ready to conduct health inspections and keep track of taxes paid.