L.A. City Council Bans Storefront Medical Marijuana Dispensaries

By Richie Duchon, City News Service

The Los Angeles City Council voted Tuesday to ban storefront medical marijuana dispensaries, citing a shifting and uncertain legal landscape that has made it nearly impossible for the city to control the number of pot shops, estimated to be around 1,000.

With the backing of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the City Attorney’s Office, police Chief Charlie Beck and District Attorney Steve Cooley, the council voted 14-0 to ban the dispensaries.

The plan championed by City Council members Jose Huizar, Mitchell Englander, Bernard Parks and Jan Perry will allow primary caregivers and patients to grow and transport marijuana. Two or three patients would be able to collectively grow and share cannabis in homes or apartments, but not storefronts.

The measure includes exemptions for hospices and licensed clinics, as well as facilities and home health agencies where patients get “medical care or supportive services.”

The ordinance did not initially receive a unanimous vote. Councilman Paul Koretz, who backed an opposing plan, voted against the ban, but changed his vote after the council agreed to advance his plan on a parallel track. If the vote had not been unanimous, the council would have been required to cast a second vote on the issue next week.

The plan by Koretz and Council President Herb Wesson, with strong backing from organized labor, could eventually allow 182 dispensaries that existed prior to 2007 — when the council placed a moratorium on new dispensaries — to operate under tightened regulations and would close all other dispensaries.

Since the council agreed to advance the Koretz-Wesson proposal, the City Attorney’s Office will draft an ordinance that will require an environmental analysis and approval by the city Planning Commission before it comes to the council. Officials said the plan could be back to the council in three months.

In the meantime, the ban approved unanimously today will take effect 30 days after it is signed by the mayor. Once the ordinance is in effect, the city will send out a letter to 762 dispensaries registered to pay taxes to the city notifying them of the new law and asking for compliance. The city will then ask a judge for closure orders, starting with the “bad actors,’’ the dispensaries that have generated the largest volumes of complaints from residents.

Medical cannabis activists shouted in opposition after the ban, sending about a dozen LAPD officers into the council chamber to escort opponents out.
Opponents of the ban said it will prove tragic for patients with terminal illnesses who cannot grow marijuana on their own because it is costly and requires extensive training.

“Forcing us to (grow our own) does not magically grant us the talent, skill and ability to grow marijuana, just as many of us would not be able to grow our own food if we did not have the option of a grocery store tomorrow,” Raj Jawa told the council.

Another activist told the council a low-end growing operation would cost at minimum $5,300.

“This is an outrage that the city council would think a reasonable solution to the distribution of medical marijuana would be to simply outlaw it altogether,’ said Don Duncan, California Director with Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group. “The tens of thousands of patients harmed by this vote will not take it sitting down. We will campaign forcefully to overturn this poor decision by the council.”

Residents of Studio City, Eagle Rock, Boyle Heights and elsewhere expressed support for the ordinance, pointing to a proliferation of dispensaries in recent years that they claim has eroded quality of life, hurt local businesses and led to multiple dispensaries on the same block in some cases.

California voters approved Proposition 215, which legalized medical marijuana, with 55.6 percent of the vote in 1996, but regulating outlets has proved troublesome, prompting some cities to effectively zone them out of existence or ban them outright.

A state appellate court recently ruled that municipalities cannot completely ban medical marijuana outlets without providing an alternative distribution method. The same court also ruled that a ban on storefront dispensaries while providing for collectives of three or fewer would not violate state law.

The ban will cost the city tax revenue. The 762 registered dispensaries paid about $2 million in gross receipts taxes during the most recent tax period — $50 for each $1,000 in gross receipts, according to a finance specialist for the City Administrative Office.

After the vote, Huizar said the ban on dispensaries still provides safe access to marijuana for patients who need it, but will also put the city on solid legal footing and alleviate quality of life issues that constituents complain about.

“Relief is coming in the form of having a more focused and intense crackdown on these dispensaries that cause problems in our neighborhoods,” Huizar said.

Koretz said banning dispensaries would not provide safe access and would drive patients to the black market for marijuana.

“I think we’re living in a dream world if we think we’re providing access to very many people. Virtually no one has the ability to grow marijuana. We are shutting down access to patients that desperately need it over the next few months,” Koretz said.

Huizar called Koretz’s motion false hope until the Supreme Court rules on whether and how cities can regulate dispensaries.

Meanwhile, Councilman Ed Reyes raised concerns about the resources it would require to shut down the dispensaries. He asked the LAPD, the City Attorney’s Office and other city officials to report back with a plan for closing dispensaries.

David Paul Steiner, an attorney for a group of pre-2007 collectives, would not say whether his clients planned to ask a judge to block the ordinance, but said, “I suspect there will be a number of dispensaries that will take further legal action, because we think this particular ordinance has all sorts of problems.”

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July 26, 2012  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

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