A pro-cannabis activist from Calaveras County has filed a lawsuit aimed at blocking arguments in favor of a local ballot measure that would ban commercial marijuana cultivation and sales if approved by voters through a special election scheduled for May 2.
Bob Bowerman, of Jenny Lind, filed a petition for a writ of mandate Thursday in Calaveras County Superior Court claiming certain statements in favor of Measure B that would be included with election materials should be deleted or amended because they are false or misleading.
“I am so sick and tired of the ban people spreading misinformation and downright lying to get voters,” Bowerman said in an interview Friday.
The 33-page document targets eight specific statements in the arguments for Measure B that were submitted to the county elections office by David Tunno and Bill McManus, of the Committee to Ban Commercial Cultivation.
Bowerman is not seeking compensation for legal costs if he prevails in the lawsuit, which is being bankrolled by the Calaveras Cannabis Alliance.
“I don’t want anything from David or Bill,” Bowerman said. “This is all about telling the truth.”
Arguments for Measure B alleged to be false or misleading include:
• illegal businesses have been attracted to the county because of regulations currently in place;
• top law enforcement officials in the county have said a ban would cost the same to enforce as regulating the industry
• median home prices have risen at a slower rate than neighboring counties where bans are in place;
• and billions of extra dollars would be available from the federal government to fight marijuana if a ban was enacted.
The other arguments in dispute are that county voters rejected pro-marijuana ballot measures in November, there are no school officials in favor of legalizing and regulating the cannabis industry as a way to generate revenue, a clause in Measure B cures any conflicts of interest with state law, and the measure would allow personal growers to cultivate up to nine plants.
Bowerman, who lost his bid for the District 5 seat on the county Board of Supervisors in November, said he’s particularly concerned about Measure B shutting down the county’s existing dispensaries and delivery services for medical-marijuana patients.
“When you’re old and sick, you can’t drive to Oakland or Stockton to get your meds,” Bowerman said.
Courtney McKinney, spokeswoman for the Calaveras Cannabis Alliance, said a ban on commercial cannabis cultivation would also have significant impacts on the economy.
McKinney cited a recent study released by the Center for Business Policy and Research at the University of the Pacific that concluded cannabis cultivation directly and indirectly accounts for about 19 percent of the county’s gross regional product.
“(A ban) would essentially crash the economy,” McKinney said.
In addition, McKinney said Calaveras County Sheriff Rick DiBasilio has stated that there wouldn’t be enough money to enforce the ban if Measure B passes in May.
According to the lawsuit, the county has collected more than $3.7 million in application fees from growers under the county’s urgency ordinance. A local tax on cannabis cultivation, processing and sales approved by county voters in November as Measure C is estimated to generate between $7 million and $11 million annually.
Proponents of Measure B say that the ban would qualify the county for billions of dollars in federal funding to combat illegal marijuana grows and businesses. However, the lawsuit argues that only $5 million to support such enforcement was allocated to the entire state of California in the Department of Justice’s 2015-16 fiscal year budget.
“The county would have to petition for this money,” McKinney said. “It’s basically hearsay because there’s no way of knowing how much money the county would receive from the federal government.”
McManus said he disagrees with all of the causes of action contained in the lawsuit, which he received Thursday.
He cited environmental concerns and an increase in violent crime related to marijuana since the county began regulating the industry as reasons for supporting the ban.
Although the Adult Use of Marijuana Act passed by California voters through Proposition 64 in November made it legal for people 21 and over to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and grow up to six plants inside their homes for personal use. It also allows local governments to outlaw or adopt stricter regulations on commercial marijuana activity within their jurisdictions.
McManus described the county’s urgency ordinance as a “lame attempt” to regulate the industry without proper enforcement. He believes Measure B would reduce the number of illegal, commercial growers operating in the county over time.
“Right now, they’re hiding in plain sight,” McManus said. “Once they start getting popped, they’re not going to stick around here.”
McManus said he looks forward to presenting documentation in court that backs up the arguments in dispute.
Rebecca Turner, the county’s registrar of voters, said a court date has yet to be announced. She’s named as the respondent in the lawsuit, while McManus and Tunno are cited as “real parties of interest.”
Turner said a decision would need to come soon for the office to meet the March 17 deadline to have election materials printed for the 100-plus registered county voters serving in the military overseas.
Such legal challenges to ballot arguments are common for statewide initiatives, but Turner said they rarely happen for local measures in the county.
“Any registered voter in the county could contest an argument and take it to court through a writ of mandate and argue the validity of that argument, so this isn’t outside of the normal processes,” Turner said. “It holds up our office slightly from getting things out to print for the voters, but we really have no opinion of how it should end one way or another.”
The debate comes at a time of uncertainty for the more than two dozen states that have legalized marijuana for medical or recreational use, as the federal government still classifies the drug as an illegal substance equivalent to heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine.
Furthermore, how President Donald Trump’s administration plans to enforce federal laws on marijuana is still unclear.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said during a daily press briefing Thursday that there will likely be greater enforcement, at least when it comes to recreational marijuana. Newly appointed U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is known for his hardline anti-drug stance.
The Obama administration mostly took a hands-off approach to states that legalized marijuana for nonmedical use.
Both the Sonora City Council and Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors are also looking into the possibility of developing regulations on the cannabis industry. They each currently have ordinances in place banning commercial marijuana cultivation and businesses.
At a meeting Tuesday, the board appointed members to serve on a new committee that will look at potential regulations on the cannabis industry in the unincorporated area.
The council is scheduled to meet March 30 for a special workshop related to marijuana regulations, following one in January when City Attorney Douglas White raised concerns about the lack of clarity over the Trump administration’s enforcement plans.