Fullerton-based attorney Randall Longwith has written petitions for about a dozen Orange County cities in an attempt to put the question of accepting medical marijuana dispensaries on each city's ballot. LEONARD ORTIZ, STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Attorney Randall T. Longwith sits behind the desk in his spacious, brick-walled Fullerton office like a general in a war room, flanked by zoning maps of the cities where he’s aiming to bring medical marijuana dispensaries next.
Anaheim, Huntington Beach, Garden Grove, Westminster, Tustin, Placentia and Fullerton – they’re all on his maps.
Three months after Longwith’s Costa Mesa petition gained enough signatures to land a pot shop question on the November 2016 ballot, he has written similar initiatives for 10 more Orange County cities. The documents sit ready for marijuana advocates, who are eager to hit the streets, collect signatures and put the question to the people: Isn’t it about time that regulated medical cannabis shops came to your town?
But this time around, Longwith – a 45-year-old criminal defense attorney who says he makes a small chunk of his income from consulting for pot dispensaries – is taking a slightly different approach, encouraged by moves Santa Ana and Costa Mesa took in response to resident-backed initiatives.
In Santa Ana, after an advocate-backed pot shop initiative qualified for the November ballot, the city created its own marijuana measure, which ultimately won out and legalized a limited number of dispensaries.
In Costa Mesa, after two cannabis petitions received enough signatures to require an electorate vote, the City Council directed staff to pen the city’s own ordinance so that it would have control in determining regulations.
The retirement city of Laguna Woods was the first in the county to legalize dispensaries in 2008, but no property owner in town has agreed to lease space to a pot shop.
“I think cities recognize what’s happening,” Longwith said this week. “This is something that’s coming. … But we don’t want to force their hands. We want them to see that this is actually good for their city.”
So before he launches his petitions, Longwith is conducting pre-emptive, closed-door talks with five O.C. cities that either see the future as he sees it or are at least curious about what he has to say.
But D-Day is near.
Longwith has big goals to have six cities legalize medical pot shops within six months.
To do that, he’ll need to get moving soon, and he has suggested he may begin the ballot measure petitioning process soon after Santa Ana’s Feb. 5 cannabis dispensary lottery. By pulling the trigger, Longwith wouldn’t be able to put an actual ballot measure before voters within six months, but he thinks that he can escalate talks with cities and put a time frame on those discussions.
But are cities ready to listen?
CITIES SHIFT ON POT
Orange County cities have a track record of opposing medical cannabis.
In 2007, Anaheim banned pot shops, and since then, the city has made it illegal for medical marijuana delivery services to make drop-offs in town – though that hasn’t stopped the Anaheim Convention Center from being the site of an annual medical marijuana expo.
In 2010, Dana Point chased dispensaries out of town by filing public nuisance lawsuits and winning $7 million in damages.
In 2011 and 2012, federal agents raided dispensaries in Garden Grove, Costa Mesa and Lake Forest after those cities asked for assistance in shutting down pot collectives.
But the landscape has shifted since those events.
Though the California Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that cities have the right to ban pot dispensaries, the decision since has inspired advocates in Los Angeles, Santa Ana and Costa Mesa to take the question directly to the people via initiative.
President Barack Obama, who long has said that marijuana should not be a priority for federal law enforcement, signed an action last month to defund the war on pot – thereby ending the raids of past years.
And after Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C., legalized recreational marijuana use in 2014 (following Colorado in 2012), California advocates project that a statewide ballot measure will pass in 2016.
Santa Ana Councilman Sal Tinajero said the confluence of events was enough to make him “see the train was coming,” and Santa Ana’s resident-backed initiative convinced him it was “time to play defense” by creating a city-backed measure. Acting more out of fear than support for pot shops, Tinajero became an advocate for local regulation and persuaded other council members to back the plan, as well.
“I said, ‘Just because you create an ordinance, doesn’t mean that you are supporting (marijuana),’ ” Tinajero said.
“We had to make a move to protect the quality of lives of our residents. ... Now, the majority of the council is saying, ‘Thank God we did this.’ Otherwise, the medical marijuana distributor would write the laws and dictate to us how they are going to operate. ...
“Imagine lobbyists writing your laws. That’s what it comes down to.”
Tinajero since has spread his advocacy beyond Santa Ana, encouraging the Costa Mesa City Council to create its own marijuana ordinance and initiating discussions with Westminster, Fullerton, Garden Grove and Anaheim.
In Westminster, one of the first cities Longwith plans to target, Councilman Sergio Contreras said he has come around to the idea that cities need to proactively address the spread of medical cannabis and prepare for the likely arrival of recreational marijuana.
“Cities must be ready to respond with responsible ordinances that keep them away from parks, churches, neighborhoods and schools,” Contreras wrote in a recent email.
Elsewhere, the reaction to Longwith’s plans and Tinajero’s advocacy has been less welcoming.
Anaheim Councilwoman Kris Murray said she supported her city’s ban, relating a story of a local rogue dispensary, at which the smoke and pungent smell of marijuana billowed out of the business into a day care center next door.
“Our residents have loudly claimed that they do not want this in Anaheim,” Murray said. “I can’t speculate whether (pot shops in Anaheim are) an inevitability. I certainly hope not. … But I can say it is not a business model that we want in our city. They are destructive to our neighborhoods and business centers.”
In Huntington Beach, Mayor Pro Tem Jim Katapodis expressed similar concerns and said his City Council had not discussed any looming arrival of medical pot shops.
Costa Mesa Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer sits somewhere in between.
The train may be coming, he said, but why expedite its arrival?
Righeimer’s chief concern is a lack of state oversight.
Without a cannabis equivalent of the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, he worries the only enforcement tool for cities will be code violations, leaving rogue operators to sell marijuana with near impunity. But if cities wait until 2016, when he expects recreational marijuana might be legalized, Righeimer thinks the state will be forced to create a regulating body to help cities control marijuana shops and medical dispensaries.
Why rush this decision, he asks, when help soon may arrive?
For Longwith, the answer is simple: because there are Orange County medical patients suffering right now who are unable to access the treatment they need.
It was 1989 when Longwith discovered his mom had been sneaking off to buy and smoke pot. He was furious.
That was also the year his mom died from an aggressive form of breast cancer.
Longwith found out about her marijuana usage after she died. After the double mastectomy, the radiation therapy, the bone marrow transplants, the chemotherapy, the hair loss, the loss of appetite and the mouth sores, the frail Yorba Linda “soccer mom” would pop on a wig, hop in her Ford Thunderbird and drive to a shady street to buy marijuana from gang members.
“That pissed me off,” he said of the lengths she had to take. “And we still have patients who are in dire need of this. It just needs to be regulated.”
Longwith agrees with Righeimer that medical marijuana could benefit from state oversight. He also agrees with Murray that poorly run pot shops can be a blight. And he understands some in O.C. see medical dispensaries as a farce for recreational use.
But he also knows that his client, Robert Taft Jr., a Costa Mesa marijuana advocate, regularly drives nearly three hours and 120 miles round-trip to San Bernardino County to buy cannabidiol oil (a non-psychoactive cannabis extract) for a local epileptic 10-year-old girl. The drug has helped the girl reduce her seizures from 1,000 per hour to six, Taft said.
Longwith said medical marijuana dispensaries need to open in all regions of Orange County to provide.
“I’m here for the patients,” Longwith said. “We don’t want to fight. We don’t want lawsuits. A lot of this is just to make cities have a robust discussion with us.”
Moments later, though, he again refers to his office as a war room, and it’s clear that bringing medical marijuana to Orange County cities will be part shove, part handshake.
“We have our (signature) gatherers, we’re holding them at bay right now,“ Longwith said. “They’re chomping at the bit to get going ...”
“But this is something that’s coming,” he added. “In 10 years, when you look back at Santa Ana, Tustin, Newport Beach, Irvine, they are going to wonder why we were so against this plan, and what a strange situation that we had a city without these facilities.“
BY JORDAN GRAHAM ~ January 17, 2015