Riverside, California – Update!

The national debate over marijuana continues to waft through the city of Riverside. A city initiative allowing medical-marijuana dispensaries has qualified for the ballot in June 2015. Reported the Press-Enterprise, “Riverside, which now bans dispensaries through the zoning code, could prove a battleground for medical marijuana supporters and opponents.”

The city already was ground zero in earlier skirmishes involving Proposition 215, which 56 percent of voters passed in 1996. It legalized medical marijuana with a doctor’s permission. The initiative’s language specifically said approval would encourage federal and state governments “to implement a plan to provide for the safe and affordable distribution of marijuana to all patients in medical need of marijuana.”

But that hasn’t happened, and cities and counties were left to do what they thought best. San Francisco and Santa Cruz have made it fairly easy to obtain medical marijuana. In contrast, in 2009, the Riverside City Council banned dispensaries. The case went all the way to the California Supreme Court, which in 2013 upheld the city’s ban. City Attorney Greg Priamos “has shut down 81 dispensaries since 2009,” the Press-Enterprise reported.

The new city initiative would mean the “re-legalization of dispensaries,” Dale Gieringer told us; he’s the director of the California chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and was a co-author of Prop. 215. He said the city initiative essentially asks, “Do Riverside voters want to have a legal dispensary in the city?”

He explained why Prop. 215 itself didn’t clarify what cities and counties ought to do. “We thought it was a complicated issue that deserved attention by the state and federal governments,” he said.

The failure of those governments to go along with Prop. 215 is being addressed this year in the California Legislature with two pieces of legislation. Assembly Bill 1894, by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, would establish a state regulation system for dispensaries, operating out of the Alcoholic Beverages Commission. Senate Bill 1262, by Sen. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana, originally would have put the state Department of Public Health in charge of regulation. However, according to a May 16 report by the League of Cities, amendments have replaced the DPH with a local-only licensing structure.

Riverside Safe Access, the group that put the initiative on the 2015 city ballot, is a consortium of collective operators and patients, said Lanny Swerdlow, a volunteer coordinator for the group. The effort was funded by donations from collectives, patients and other interested people,” he said. Swerdlow expects a tough but victorious fight to pass the initiative.

Our view is that the people of California clearly voted that they want, in the wording of Prop. 215, “To ensure that seriously ill Californians have the right to obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes” to treat such ailments as cancer and AIDS.

Since 1996, attitudes on marijuana have eased throughout the country, with 20 other states following California’s lead in legalizing it for medical purposes. And in 2012, voters in Colorado and Washington state even legalized pot for recreation.

We hope the California Legislature acts quickly to finally pass legislation that clarifies the implementation of Prop. 215 – preferably AB 1894. In any case, we welcome Riverside’s initiative to clarify local voters’ will on medical marijuana.

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