Opponents of a Kern County ban on storefront medical marijuana collectives temporarily blocked the law from taking effect Friday morning. Activists with the Kern Citizens For Patient Rights turned in 26,335 signatures to Kathleen Krause, the clerk of the Board of Supervisors, at about 4 p.m. Thursday — an hour before they were due. They needed to turn in at least 17,350 signatures to stop the ordinance.
By 5:15 p.m., elections workers had confirmed the number of signatures turned in and were preparing for the long task of verifying their validity — work expected to stretch into next week.
On Aug. 9, Kern County supervisors passed ordinance G-8191, which bans storefront medical marijuana collectives and the sale of edible marijuana products like brownies in unincorporated county areas. The ordinance was set to take effect at 12:01 a.m. Friday. But delivery of the signatures automatically prevented the ordinance from becoming law, at least for another few days. If it turns out not enough signatures qualify, the ban would take effect. Heather Epps, president of Kern Citizens, said the ordinance puts medical marijuana patients in danger by forcing them to search the streets for medication that is legal under state law.
Passage of the ordinance galvanized the collective community, she said, turning a loose group of competitors into “friends and allies.” She said the collectives have repeatedly called for comprehensive regulation of how they operate in Kern County, but supervisors responded only with an outright ban. Supervisors said the storefront operations were a nuisance and public safety hazard and that patients could get their medication through a loose collection of “caregivers.”
Kern Citizens For Patient Rights faces a new challenge next week. Kern County Elections Division Chief Karen Rhea said her staff will work through the weekend to finish filing the 5,933 new voter registration cards submitted by Kern Citizens in the past three weeks. Once that is done, possibly by Monday or Tuesday, elections workers will begin checking every signature submitted Thursday to confirm they match up with a registered Kern County voter, Rhea said.
Elections could, legally, verify only a sample of the signatures to certify the petition as valid. But, Rhea said, it’s prudent to do a 100 percent count. Ordinance opponents need to have 17,350 of the 26,335 signatures verified to take the next step. Once the count is done, Kern County’s ordinance will reach another turning point.
If too many signatures are disqualified, and medical marijuana advocates fall short of the required number, the ordinance would take effect immediately. If enough valid signatures have been collected, however, the ordinance would be suspended again and supervisors would hold a re-hearing of the ordinance. Supervisors would have two options at that meeting:
* Repeal the ordinance — eliminating it permanently.
* Move the ordinance forward by calling for a referendum on the law — setting up an election on the issue before Kern County voters either in a special election or at the June 2012 primary.
Supervisor Mike Maggard said Thursday that supervisors will have until March to make that decision and he will advocate for waiting that long.
“The legal landscape is changing by the minute,” Maggard said, explaining supervisors should wait until they have as much information as they can to make a decision about whether to repeal the law or take it to a vote.
He wouldn’t comment on whether supervisors would avoid a vote by repealing the ordinance and then passing a new ordinance. Rhea said the last special election, for a state budget measure in 2009, cost $1.14 million to hold in Kern County. In contrast, adding the medical marijuana referendum to the June 2012 primary ballot would cost roughly $50,000 to $100,000 Rhea said.
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