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Tacoma: Pot initiative receives ballot title — first step in qualifying for November’s ballot

Post by Lewis Kamb / The News Tribune on April 1, 2011 at 6:43 pm | 5 Comments »
April 4, 2011 10:26 am

A group of Tacoma citizens led by a local medical marijuana advocate is pursuing a citywide ballot initiative seeking to make cannabis-related offenses “the lowest enforcement priority of the City of Tacoma.”

The group’s proposed measure, submitted to the City Clerk’s office this week, received a formal ballot title today.

That triggers a five-day waiting period before supporters of the measure — formally dubbed “Initiative 1” – can begin legally collecting signatures to qualify it for November’s general election ballot, City Clerk Doris Sorum said.

Supporters say they’ll hit the streets with petitions by as early as next Friday.

Justin Prince, the former proprietor of THC (Tacoma Hemp Co.) – a local medical marijuana dispensary raided by Tacoma police last year — said the effort was largely sparked by the city’s heavy handed approach toward businesses like his.

“We looked at what the city was doing in wasting limited resources in these hard economic times by going after legitimate businesses that serve a need,” Prince said. “There are far better things they should be going after – like crimes that have actual victims.”

A Tacoma police spokesman did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment today.

Prince and co-petitioner Sherry Bockwinkel, a veteran signature gatherer, said they based the measure largely on Seattle’s Initiative 75.

Passed by city voters in 2003, the measure directed Seattle’s police and city attorney to “make the investigation, arrest and prosecution of marijuana offenses, when the marijuana was intended for adult personal use, the city’s lowest law enforcement priority.”

State and federal law trump the Seattle ordinance, but Prince and Bockwinkel say the citizen’s will is largely followed under the local measure.

“It’s exactly like (Initiative) 75,” Bockwinkel said of the Tacoma proposal. “And the report that’s posted on the city of Seattle’s website is just glowing about how well it’s worked up there. It has seemed to have a great positive impact on the community.”

Prince added that while some marijuana crimes are still prosecuted in Seattle, they tend to be more serious offenses.

“Right now, we just want to see Tacoma have a prosecuting attorney that pays attention to the city’s will on these matters,” he said.

Prince, who opened Tacoma’s first medical pot dispensary in 2009, ultimately pleaded to a misdemeanor offense following last year’s raid and is now working through a deferred sentence, he said.

His dispensary was the first in a series of medical pot operations targeted by the city, which ultimately began sending cease and desist letters citing licensing violations rather than using police force, after dozens of citizens alleged law enforcement used heavy-handed tactics against Prince.

In October, after hundreds of people filled City Hall, the Tacoma City Council announced the city would delay setting hearings on appeals in those licensing cases until the end of the 2011 state legislative session. Council members said they hoped the legislature would clarify portions of the state’s medical marijuana law approved by a citizens’ initiative and enacted in 1999.

Two legislative measures remain active this year and a separate statewide ballot measure to legalize marijuana is also now in the works. Still, Bockwinkel and Prince said that’s not enough.

“The main reason we want this (city initiative) is so Tacoma has protections in place regardless of what happens with the Senate or House bill, or with the upcoming citizens’ initiative,” Prince said.

Under Section 2.19 of the city’s charter, a citizens’ initiative can qualify for the local ballot if petitioners can submit an amount of ballot signatures from registered voters “equal to ten percent (10%) of the votes cast in the last mayoral election” within 180 days after a ballot title is confirmed.

That amount could range from about 3,800 to 4,100 signatures, depending on how officials tally ballot counts in Tacoma’s 2009 mayoral race. City officials are now trying to determine whether they should include some 2,439 over- and under-votes from ballots cast but not counted in the election, Sorum said.

Regardless, supporters say they’re confident they can collect enough signatures.

“Everybody I’ve spoken to are very supportive of this,” Prince said. “…This is not going away.”

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