The Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday shunted a vote on its much-delayed medical marijuana ordinance most likely into next year, worried that the draft proposal could eliminate most dispensaries and lead to just a few "big-box" pot stores in isolated industrial areas.
The unexpected decision slowed the breakneck schedule the council had adhered to in recent weeks in its drive to pass an ordinance before the end of the year. The council has been on fast-forward since October, when a judge ruled that the city's moratorium on dispensaries was invalid, leaving Los Angeles with almost no power to shut down hundreds that have opened without permission in the last two years.
But key council members had second thoughts about the council's decision Tuesday to require dispensaries to be at least 1,000 feet from any residences. The council, at the end of a marathon session, voted for the amendment even though city planners warned that it might eliminate most locations.
"I think by doing that, we just gutted the entire work that we have done," said council President Eric Garcetti, who pressed for the delay.
He said that he believed the council's decision Tuesday to cap the number of dispensaries at 70 "is very cynical when in reality we know there's going to be about five or 10 mega-dispensaries that would be in industrial parks, and that's it."
Overnight, the council appeared to shift its stance from speedily enacting a very restrictive ordinance that could be softened later to making sure the ordinance is right the first time. "I'm glad that we're not rushing something through," Garcetti said. "We can't get this wrong."
Over the objections of several members, the council decided to wait until the Planning Department can finish maps that show how many sites are available 500 feet and 1,000 feet from so-called sensitive uses, such as schools, parks, churches and residences.
S. Gail Goldberg, the city planning director, said she would like to finish both versions for each of the city's 35 community plan areas by next Wednesday, when the council is scheduled to review them. "I actually have my mapping people not doing anything else right now," she said. "I want to get this done."
Councilman Ed Reyes, who oversaw the effort to write an ordinance, urged the council to "just take a deep breath" and wait for the maps.
"We are going to find that we have literally restricted this thing out of the city and that we will see ourselves in court because of the position we put ourselves in," he said.
The council has known for years that it was likely to restrict dispensary locations. More than four years ago, then-Police Chief William J. Bratton recommended that dispensaries be kept from neighborhoods, schools and recreational areas. The first draft ordinance, written 20 months ago, prohibited dispensaries within a 1,000-foot radius of a list of sensitive uses that is similar to those in the current draft.
Reyes said he asked for the maps several months ago. City planners did submit sample maps in September for two community plan areas using 1,000-foot buffers.
Goldberg said the planning department, with its limited resources, was unable to complete the maps before the council altered the location criteria, which means the mappers have to take new data into account.
"This was a huge task for the Planning Department to take on," she said.
Alan Bell, a senior city planner, said that creating the maps involves analyzing multiple sets of data and making calculations for every radius drawn. "It's not as simple as pushing a button," he said. "I have to say what we've done in the last few months has been unprecedented."
Garcetti said he studied his council district Tuesday night and could not find any locations for dispensaries. "I was worried that all the work we had done and everything that we wanted to do had gone to the wind," he said. After some debate over removing residences from the list, Garcetti asked the council to wait for the maps. "Then we'll be able to do something that is . . . logical and fair," he said.
A few council members urged the council not to put off a vote on the ordinance.
"We could have voted today. We have enough information. We don't need the maps," said Councilman Jose Huizar. "We have come a long way, and I think we have an ordinance that strikes a balance between neighborhood concerns and access."
Reyes said he did not think the delay would make much difference and could lead to a better ordinance. "Let's be frank," he told the council, "not much is going to happen between now and the holidays."
But Councilman Richard Alarcon said, "I say we do it and then we can truly have happy holidays."