Medical marijuana backers sue city

Attorneys representing petitioners who want to bring back medical marijuana dispensaries in Costa Mesa have filed lawsuits against the city that could force a special election this spring.

Attorneys Randall Longwith and David R. Welch are alleging in Orange County Superior Court that the City Council erred in December when it voted to place their clients’ marijuana petitions on the November 2016 ballot rather than call for a special election this spring.

The council’s reasoning was that both proposals contained a new general tax. They cited Proposition 218, a 1996 amendment to the state Constitution that requires new general taxes be voted on only when the local governing body is also being chosen. In Costa Mesa’s case, that was the next City Council election nearly two years later, in November 2016.

The lawsuits have emerged as the city’s own attempt at re-allowing dispensaries seems to have faded, as witnessed in the dwindling support from the City Council on Tuesday. Dispensaries have been banned since 2005, though many were still open until federal raids forced their closure in 2012.

In an interview Wednesday, Longwith reiterated his concerns, previously expressed after the council’s December decision, that Costa Mesa has misinterpreted Proposition 218.

He said the constitutional amendment prohibits “local governments” from instituting new taxes without voter approval. Longwith said the more than 11,000 Costa Mesa voters who signed his marijuana petitions cannot be considered “local government” and, thus, Proposition 218 doesn’t apply.

“If anything, the people exercising their power of initiative are the antithesis, the polar opposite, of a local government,” he said, adding that it is unusual to have people sign a petition that includes a new tax.

“It’s kind of a strange situation when you think about it,” Longwith said.

Both medical marijuana petitions would place a 6% tax on dispensaries; one would add an additional 1% tax on “the sale of all other tangible personal property at retail,” which has been interpreted to mean marijuana-related items bought in a dispensary.

Longwith said he is seeking both a preliminary injunction and temporary restraining order, either of which could force Costa Mesa to hold a special election on his proposal within 30 days.

City officials, who hadn’t yet been served with the lawsuits, declined to comment Thursday afternoon.