Advocates for medical marijuana are making concerted efforts to generate voter participation for Long Beach’s election scheduled for April 8. Most municipal elections don’t usually report a high turnout, however, this Primary Nominating Election has garnered more attention from those who are closely watching how local residents are reacting to a controversial measure on the ballot that proposes a tax on medical marijuana.
Known as Measure A, the legislation proposes a tax on gross receipts of medical-marijuana sales as well as a tax on a cultivation site’s square-foot area. The tax amounts have some flexibility. The sales tax may be as high as 10 percent, but the initial rate has been proposed to be set at six percent. The tax on the square-foot area of cultivation sites may be as high as $50 per square foot, but the initial rate has been proposed to be set at $15 per square foot. The initial rate for certain exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations has been proposed to be set at $10 per square foot.
The tax measure, however, has one problem– dispensaries aren’t legally allowed to operate in Long Beach. Voters would be deciding how to tax businesses that have been banned. City officials and the Planning Commission are currently working to develop a new ordinance.
Assistant City Attorney Michael Mais acknowledged in an emailed statement to the Signal Tribune that the City could not collect this tax unless voters approved it first.
“If it does not pass during this election cycle,” Mais wrote, “the City could not impose a tax until an election is held sometime in the future.”
While acknowledging some concerns with the tax amounts, the Long Beach Collective Association (LBCA) has actively campaigned in support of the measure. Spokesman Adam Hijazi said this week that his organization has made phone calls, sent emails, contacted neighborhood associations throughout the city and conducted surveys with constituents to generate dialogue about medical cannabis and the tax measure.
The organization has a vast database of individuals who favor regulation of medical-marijuana dispensaries in the city. Last year, the LBCA reported that they collected more than 43,000 signatures for a petition to put the question of regulating the dispensaries on the ballot in an election. A court determined later that the medical-marijuana advocates did not gather enough petition signatures that would require a special election to approve regulations on pot-dispensaries. A press release from the LBCA confirmed that they are still challenging that earlier court decision and that the matter will soon be heard by an appeals court in June.
In a telephone interview on Tuesday, Hijazi described how this measure could be a first step for dispensaries who want to operate in Long Beach. He argued that if voters favor a tax on dispensaries, they will favor regulations on these dispensaries.
“And, I think that helps [to] legitimize safe access [to medical cannabis] in Long Beach,” Hijazi concluded.
Other marijuana advocates are also actively campaigning against the measure. Larry King, a former dispensary owner and former candidate for the city’s 7th-district council seat, is one of the measure’s vocal critics. A founding coordinator for the Long Beach chapter of The Human Solution, another medical-marijuana advocacy group, King said that he and the organization have also been distributing flyers and have been sending out mailers. He added that a group has volunteered to drive voters to polling locations. They have even reserved several cars, including a wheelchair-accessible vehicle for Election Day.
He criticized the tax rates on businesses, arguing that about 90 percent of the people whom he has seen in need of medical marijuana have low incomes.
“[They] have enormous medical bills and enormous medical problems,” King said in a telephone interview Tuesday, “and the burden is just going to go on them.”
Like Hijazi, King also said that a tax would legitimize medical marijuana for those who may be undecided about the issue. He acknowledged Long Beach could benefit from the tax revenue that could fund city services.
He said that he would not mind a “fair” tax similar to the six-percent amount charged for alcohol, however, he is sharply critical of the additional tax on cultivation sites since these businesses would have to pay the square-footage tax even if their plants died.
Long Beach city officials have struggled for several years over just how to best regulate medical-marijuana businesses. Perhaps at the very least next Tuesday, residents will know how to calculate the sales tax on the product they can’t buy just yet.