Based on a recent survey where local voters split evenly on the question of legalizing in-town medical marijuana dispensaries, the City Council instructed city staff Tuesday to prepare a November ballot measure countering a petition-driven initiative that would allow for local dispensaries.
If approved by voters, the city’s competing measure would provide stricter permit and operating regulations and allow the council to modify the ordinance in the future, according to City Manager John Pietig and the council’s discussion, which would mean the potential for ordinance revisions without voter approval. The council must vote on the city-drafted dispensary ballot measure at its next meeting, July 26, to finalize the language for placement on the ballot by Aug. 12.
“The reality is our only choice to defeat this thing is to have our own,” said Mayor Pro Tem Toni Iseman.
In April, a petition calling for the legalization of medical marijuana dispensaries in Laguna Beach and the repeal of the city’s ban on dispensaries qualified for the November ballot.
Police Chief Laura Farinella initially recommended that the city counter the petition-driven measure with an opposing educational blitz to inform voters about the consequences of approving what the council has called a sloppy initiative propelled by out-of-town interests.
After discussion, the council and the chief discarded that recommendation and chose to consider a competing measure. “We appreciate that’s a little more work but we also understand the difficult policy decision before the council,” said Pietig, who, along with Farinella and City Attorney Phil Kohn, will prepare the draft ballot measure.
Finding a location with adequate parking in a small beach town burgeoning with 6 million visitors annually will be a problem, Iseman said.
The petition-driven initiative now on the ballot doesn’t reflect the values of the community, Farinella told the council. The shift to a competing ballot measure, suggested by council member Rob Zur Schmiede, was made due to the concern that an education campaign may not be strong enough to sway voters. In a presidential election, more young voters and Democrats vote, public opinion researcher John Fairbank told city officials. Voters will also be asked to decide on a statewide measure to legalize recreational use of marijuana.
“This is a presidential turn-out, marijuana is going to pass statewide and there’s a lot of strong supporters who want these to pass,” said Fairbank, of Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz and Associates, a public opinion research firm in Los Angeles. The largest segment of local voters is older and more conservative, said Fairbank, whose firm recently conducted the local voter survey.
“You don’t have many 18- to 29-year-olds; 17 percent of your voters are young,” he said. Fairbank predicted special interests will campaign aggressively to pass the petition-driven measure. Iseman later added that potential dispensary revenue in Laguna Beach would far outweigh campaign spending for the petition-driven initiative.
The council weighed but ultimately rejected a third measure asking voters to ban dispensaries altogether, which several nearby cities have done, including Newport Beach, Irvine and Costa Mesa. Fairbank said too many initiatives can confuse voters.
“If you think something is going to pass in this election, then you should have your own ordinance,” Pietig advised the council, saying the council could revise it later. “If you don’t put anything on and the measure that qualified by petition passes, you’re now pre-empted from restricting that or changing that.”
Costa Mesa voters will confront three medical marijuana dispensary initiatives for the November ballot, two filed by outside parties and the other a city version that would essentially extend the city’s current ban on dispensaries, said Tony Dodero, a city spokesman. Santa Ana is the only city in the county currently with legal dispensaries, Fairbank said.
Mayor Steve Dicterow, an attorney, recused himself from the discussion and vote due to a potential professional conflict of interest.