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L.A. can't go it alone on pot

L.A.'s new ordinance on pot dispensaries attempts to answer the needs of the ailing while ensuring public safety and abiding by state and federal law.

February 02, 2010|By José Huizar

The Los Angeles City Council last week finally adopted a medical marijuana ordinance. Though not perfect, it balances the needs of local communities with those of patients who truly need access to medical marijuana. And it will rein in an out-of-control situation in which a federally banned substance has been sold for the last four years as hundreds of dispensaries proliferated in the city of Los Angeles, with no local regulations and ambiguous state laws to guide us.

To make the new ordinance work as effectively as possible, legislators need to clarify the state's medical marijuana laws -- Proposition 215 and its accompanying SB 420. Both are silent or vague on critical issues for the practical implementation at the local level.

As cities throughout California draft ordinances, they are grappling with issues that they have no power over and that should be handled at the state level. Moreover, they are trying to pinpoint evolving and changing court rulings interpreting state law.

In Los Angeles, one of the most difficult issues was what constitutes a "sale." My colleagues on the City Council and I addressed this by stipulating that although no collective shall operate for profit, "cash and in-kind contributions, reimbursements and reasonable compensation" are allowed as long as they comply with current state law. However, we don't know how this provision will be enforced because we are relying on state law that is unclear and in litigation.

It is also unclear whether the over-the-counter dispensary model was what voters intended when they approved Proposition 215. The law might have intended a much more limited distribution of marijuana, such as having either patients or their caregivers grow their own product or having collectives grow a small amount and reimburse members for their labor.

Without clarity from the state, the council also had to punt on the issues of cultivation and transportation of marijuana by saying that the ordinance would abide by state law.

Cultivation is important because the ordinance as written does not address where the collectives will obtain their marijuana. Will it be grown locally, imported from Northern California or bought on the black market? And are people who transport the marijuana to and from collectives immune from prosecution?

Another issue that is not being addressed locally but perhaps is the biggest impediment to properly regulating dispensaries relates to the wide discretion and relative immunity that physicians have in recommending medical marijuana to patients. When most of us have a medical issue, we don't look through the pages of alternative weeklies to find a physician. We go to the doctor who knows the most about our medical history -- our primary-care physician.

Yet under state law there is no requirement to curb abuse by having people see their primary-care physician first, or, as Oregon does, to require that a patient get a note from an "attending physician" with whom he or she has an established patient/physician relationship.

It's interesting to note that Oregon, like several other states, only allows medical marijuana for a narrow list of conditions. In contrast, in California, marijuana can be recommended for anything from cancer to writer's cramp. So, although California voters have not (yet) directed the state to legalize marijuana for nonmedical use, the state medical marijuana law has created de facto legalization because practically anyone can become a qualified patient.

Given these ambiguities, the city has provided an ordinance within existing state law that does its best to create access for medical marijuana patients while protecting local communities from potential negative consequences.

The council voted to support a requirement that dispensaries be at least 1,000 feet from sensitive-use areas where children and families gather, such as schools, playgrounds and places of worship -- and from other dispensaries.

We also capped the number of collectives at 70 (instead of the estimated 700-plus that exist) and required notification to neighborhood councils before new dispensaries open in their areas. To control profiteering, we also required annual audits and outlawed common ownership of multiple collectives.

I, like a majority of California voters, voted in favor of Proposition 215 because I believe that patients dealing with cancer, AIDS, chronic pain and other serious ailments should have access to medical marijuana.

However, I remain concerned about profiteers looking to make a quick buck, recreational users looking to use an ambiguous state law to their advantage and less-than-scrupulous doctors willing to play along by writing quick and unverified recommendations. Though seemingly innocuous to some, these unchecked activities can lead to real problems in local communities should the state refuse to further regulate medical marijuana. I encourage state legislators to immediately amend SB 420 to deal with its ambiguities.

In the future, if the voters legalize marijuana for recreational use, I would hope that the state provides clear and practical rules for local implementation, unlike what has occurred with medical marijuana.

José Huizar represents the 14th District on the Los Angeles City Council.

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