Central California

Court denies group’s lawsuit over ballot language for Bakersfield medicinal marijuana dispensary initiative

A judge has denied a lawsuit against the city of Bakersfield that challenged ballot language asking voters to overturn a citywide ban on medicinal marijuana dispensaries.

The Kern Citizens for Patient rights alleged in the lawsuit that language drafted by the Bakersfield City Attorney’s Office in conjunction with the City Clerk would bias voters against the measure appearing on the ballot in the November election.

The group had sued to compel the city to draft new language to appear on the ballot. On Friday, a Kern County Superior Court judge rejected the group’s arguments, siding with the city.

“Our argument basically was that we complied with the law,” said Deputy City Attorney Richard Iger. “It’s not a real complicated issue.”

The state elections code requires that municipalities draft unbiased language for all initiatives that qualify for the ballot.

The Kern Citizens initiative, known as the Jarvis/Epps initiative after two of the group’s leaders, argued the language drafted by the city did not sufficiently describe the laws that would be approved should the measure pass in November.

The group collected almost 33,000 signatures from registered Bakersfield voters in 2016 to qualify the measure for the ballot.

The city drafted the following question to appear on the ballot, which was recently approved by the Bakersfield City Council: “Shall the City of Bakersfield adopt the following law: Shall the measure amending the Bakersfield Municipal Code to allow medical marijuana store front dispensaries, cultivation sites, manufacturers, distributors, and delivery operations with a valid permit, and which will impose a 7.5 percent excise tax that will last until terminated by voters, [based on current information fiscal impact is unknown] be adopted?”

Attorney Phil Ganong, who represents the group and wrote the initiative, said the ballot language drafted by the city lacked basic elements like a fiscal impact report and a title, which should be included in the language.

“We’re entitled to have a true and unbiased ballot question as well as a summary,” he said. “We’re entitled to have the question drafted in a way that’s neither for or against the measure.”

He worried the 7.5 percent excise tax was not sufficiently explained in the ballot language, and said the language did not properly describe the regulatory system that would be enforced should the initiative succeed with the voters.

If the measure does pass, the ban on medicinal marijuana dispensaries within Bakersfield would be replaced with the rules set forth by the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act of 2015, which regulated medicinal marijuana use prior to recreational legalization.

Following the loss in court, Ganong filed an appeal with the Fifth District Court of Appeal.

“We’re hopeful and expecting that the appellate court will give us a quick answer on this,” he said.

Time is running out for all issues ballot-related.

Aug. 10 is the last day anything can be added to the ballot, with Aug. 15 being the last day anything can be amended or withdrawn.

The appeals court has not yet indicated whether or not it will take on the case.

Ganong said he was optimistic the lawsuit would succeed on appeal.

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415 or smorgen@bakersfield.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.

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