Referendum seeks to put South Lake Tahoe cannabis regulations on ballot
September 14, 2018
An effort to put the city of South Lake Tahoe's recently approved cannabis regulations before voters is underway, but some community members are raising concerns about misleading information being distributed by low-level members of the campaign.
Signature gatherers started appearing outside grocery stores, the post office and elsewhere last week with a petition for a referendum on the city's cannabis regulations.
If enough signatures are gathered within 30 days of Aug. 21 — the date council approved the regulations — the cannabis ordinance would be suspended as the signatures are verified. State law requires the number of signatures to, at a minimum, amount to 10 percent of the most recent registered voter roll.
If enough valid signatures are gathered, the regulations would remain suspended as City Council decides to either repeal the regulations or put them before voters.
At this point, it is too late to qualify for the November general election. Council could call a special election or wait until the next regular election in 2020.
Council also could choose to repeal the ordinance. However, it would be unable to enact that same ordinance again for another year — it would be able to enact a new ordinance addressing cannabis regulations.
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Attempting to work around the repeal limitations by making minor changes to the current ordinance, could lead to a lawsuit, said James Anthony, an attorney who specializes in cannabis issues. Anthony is spearheading the referendum effort at the request of Cody Bass, executive director of Tahoe Wellness Cooperative, the only legally operating dispensary in South Lake Tahoe.
In reviewing the current situation, Anthony directed blame entirely at City Council for enacting what he called an "unworkable" ordinance.
"Frankly, if you ask me, it's the City Council's fault," he said.
On Aug. 21 City Council approved an ordinance allowing a limited number of cannabis businesses in the city. Council also approved guidelines for development agreements, something each legally operating cannabis business will be required to have in addition to a state license, city use permit, and city-issued public safety license.
The choice of using the development agreements allows the city to generate money without the implementation of a tax. Council had the opportunity earlier this summer to put a potential cannabis tax on the November ballot but declined to do so.
Bass, who is one of nine candidates for City Council, and Anthony argue that sticking with development agreements is one of the major flaws with the ordinance.
"The whole things seems unworkable, unworkable to say the least," Anthony told the Tribune.
Misleading, false information
However, the referendum effort has sparked confusion among some residents, and city leaders, and concern from others who accuse signature petition gathers of being misleading.
There are laws requiring the availability of accurate information when gathering signatures. South Lake Tahoe Police Chief Brian Uhler told the Tribune his department has fielded phone calls from people claiming signature gatherers were reluctant to disclose information. Others complained signature gatherers were sharing misleading information.
The department has looked into the matter and although the talking points are "subject to interpretation," police have not found any crimes being committed, Uhler said.
Separately, a Tribune staff member on two different occasions was approached by two different signature gatherers who stated false information. In one instance a signature gatherer falsely said the petition was to put a previous ballot initiative led by Bass on this November's ballot. That initiative failed to make the ballot due to insufficient valid signatures.
In a separate instance, another signature gatherer falsely stated that the city had just banned cannabis businesses. The petition would overturn that ban, according to the signature gatherer, who also claimed to be an attorney helping lead the petition effort.
When informed of the second instance by the Tribune, Anthony asked for a description of the petition signature and said that he would be fired immediately. He also stated that any community members who hear blatantly false claims from a signature gatherer should contact him at email@example.com.
"All I can do is track them down and fire them," he said.
Signature gatherers have been provided with a fact sheet that they are supposed to stick to, Anthony added.
The fact sheet echoes many of the arguments Bass has been making publicly for months.
"The Ordinance harms local access to medical cannabis," states one bullet point.
"It essentially puts the town's home-grown dispensary, Tahoe Wellness Cooperative, out of business by denying it the right to transition into the Adult Use ("Recreational") market to survive," states another.
This assertion comes from the fact that Bass would be unable to maintain his current uses if he were to apply for adult use. In order to continue current uses and expand into adult use, Tahoe Wellness would need one of the two microbusiness licenses allowed under the city's ordinance.
The city says it relied on area plans — which cannot be altered without approval from the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency — for zoning on specific license types. Microbusinesses are not permitted in the zoning where Tahoe Wellness is located.
Tahoe Wellness could move, but Bass points to a drawn-out court battle that he just went through to purchase the building where Tahoe Wellness is located. Without being able to sell recreational marijuana as other businesses open in South Lake Tahoe, Bass maintains Tahoe Wellness, which is in an active lawsuit against the city, won't survive.
One thing that is certain is referendum backers need approximately 1,012 signatures, and they have less than a week to finish collecting them.
CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to clarify the limitations once an ordinance is repealed via the referendum process.