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Illegal L.A. marijuana dispensaries lose exemption loophole

The City Council eliminates a provision in the 2007 moratorium that allowed outlets with pending applications to stay open. The city will continue to work toward a permanent ordinance.

June 20, 2009|John Hoeffel

Seeking to halt the spread of medical marijuana dispensaries, the Los Angeles City Council on Friday sealed a legal loophole that had allowed hundreds to operate in open violation of the city's moratorium.

The council now faces the daunting task of trying to shut down these dispensaries.

By Friday, 665 had applied to the City Council for exemptions from the moratorium. Most opened without permission. As the first step to closing them, the council must act on each request.

"I feel like the guy with the finger on the dam. It's all cracking," said Councilman Ed Reyes, who heads the committee that must review each application. "I've got to stay focused and not panic."

The city adopted a temporary ban on new dispensaries in 2007 and continues to debate a permanent set of rules to control them.

The moratorium allowed existing dispensaries to remain open if they registered with the city, and 186 met the requirements.

But the moratorium failed to prevent more dispensaries from opening, prompting concern from residents in many neighborhoods that spurred the council into action.

Looking into the proliferation, council members were shocked to find that a provision in the moratorium was having the unintended effect of encouraging dispensaries to open.

Would-be dispensary operators were applying for hardship exemptions from the moratorium, knowing the city attorney's office had decided it could not win court cases against dispensaries with pending applications.

Until last week, the council had not acted on a single application.

The council's action Friday eliminated the exemption provision. The city will no longer accept applications.

"Your day is over for those who are doing this to make a quick profit," warned Councilman Jose Huizar, who pressed for the fix after constituents in Eagle Rock complained.

The city will now be able to take action against dispensaries when they open. If they refuse the city's order to close, the city attorney can seek civil fines of $2,500 a day. Owners could also face up to six months in jail.

The council, however, will have to hold hearings to close those dispensaries that filed applications for exemptions.

Reyes, who will oversee the process, predicted that he could deal with two or three cases in an hour, which could tie up the planning committee for hundreds of hours.

"That's why my colleagues are like, 'Oh, my God,' " he said.

On June 9, to demonstrate it would act forcefully against medical marijuana dispensaries, the council denied a dozen exemption applications. But in the eight workdays since, it has denied only one.

Reyes intends to wade through applications until the council adopts a medical marijuana ordinance. Once that happens, all the dispensaries in the city -- even those that asked for exemptions -- would have to comply.

The council is considering provisions that would keep dispensaries 1,000 feet from each other and from schools, libraries, parks and other places children congregate. That could force many dispensaries to close.

On Friday, the council also gave itself more time to write the ordinance, extending the moratorium until March 15. It was set to expire in September.

Reyes, however, promised: "It doesn't mean we're going to take that long."

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john.hoeffel@latimes.com

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