L.A. medical marijuana dispensaries apparently fall short in bid to force referendum

A group of Los Angeles medical marijuana dispensaries appeared to have failed to collect enough signatures by Monday's deadline to force a referendum on the city's new pot ordinance but asked for an extension to continue circulating the petition.

Dan Halbert, operator of Rainforest Collective in Mar Vista and the principal organizer, said the coalition of collectives gathered about 30,000 signatures but determined that only about 14,200 appeared valid. The collectives need at least 27,425 signatures for the referendum to qualify.

An exhausted Halbert, accompanied by his lawyer and a friend who said he has never smoked marijuana, wheeled eight boxes of petitions into the city's elections division office, lining them up on the counter.

Election officials will count the signatures and, if the number meets the minimum required, they will check a random sample to see if enough are valid. If the referendum qualifies, the City Council must rescind the law or put it on a ballot.

Halbert and his lawyer, Nathan V. Hoffman, handed a letter to Arleen P. Taylor, chief of the elections division, requesting a 10-day extension.

They said it took city officials that long to approve the petition, cutting into the 30 days allowed to file it. "They were slow, dragging their heels to my client's detriment," Hoffman said.

City officials, consulting their own timeline, said they approved the petition in six days, explaining that some of the delays occurred because pages of the petition were missing or out of order.

Taylor politely told Halbert she would reply to his request in writing, but election officials also said the City Charter has no provision that would allow them to grant such an extension.

"It's supposed to be a peoples referendum, but it's not. The average person would not be able to do it without big funding," said Halbert, citing the limited time he had to draft a petition, print it and circulate it. "It affects all of our rights as citizens of Los Angeles to stop something the City Council wants to do."

The city's medical marijuana ordinance will cap the number of stores at 70 but exempts those that registered with the city in 2007.

City officials estimate that will allow no more than 128.

Halbert, who moved to Los Angeles from Phoenix to get into the business, is one of hundreds of operators who would be forced to close under the ordinance. Despite the threat to their businesses, many operators were wary about becoming involved, concerned about drawing the attention of police and city enforcement inspectors.

Halbert, who said he spent between $20,000 and $30,000 on the effort, was discouraged that more collectives did not rally around the petition drive until the final days. "I'm disappointed in the process, and I'm disappointed in, obviously, the coalition," he said. "There were some players in it, but just not as many as needed."

Halbert said he did not expect the city to grant an extension and said he would review his legal options.

john.hoeffel@latimes.com

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