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Los Angeles City Council passes medical marijuana dispensary ordinance

Hundreds would have to close; those remaining would operate under tight restrictions. Budget constraints could make enforcement a challenge.

January 19, 2010|By John Hoeffel
  • Richard Eastman, right, an AIDS patient who has addressed the L.A. City Council on the medical marijuana issue over the years, talks with Tom Kikuchi of Americans for Safe Access after the vote.
Richard Eastman, right, an AIDS patient who has addressed the L.A. City… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)

The Los Angeles City Council voted Tuesday to adopt a comprehensive medical marijuana ordinance that clamps strict controls on dispensaries, which have spread with a velocity that stunned city officials and angered some residents.

Settling the last controversial issue on its list, the council decided to require the stores to locate at least 1,000 feet from so-called sensitive uses, such as schools, parks, libraries and other dispensaries. The decision to reject a 500-foot setback reflected the council's intent to write the most restrictive rules that would still allow dispensaries.

The ordinance, which emerged after 2 1/2 years of debate, will be one of the toughest in the state. It could douse the city's vivid anything-goes pot culture, which has been both celebrated and excoriated. The ordinance bans consumption at dispensaries, requires them to close by 8 p.m. and outlaws the ubiquitous neon cannabis-leaf signs.

Council members acknowledged that the ordinance is not perfect and is likely to please no one.

"It's going to be a living ordinance," said Council President Eric Garcetti, predicting that the body will have to tinker with the provisions. "I think there is much good in it. I think nobody will know how some of these things play out until we have them in practice, and we made a commitment to make sure that we continue to improve the ordinance."

Although some council members attempted to reopen debate on some contentious aspects and medical marijuana advocates urged a few last-minute alterations, council members pressed for a vote.

"Our moment is now. Our moment is today," Councilman Herb Wesson said. "We've been discussing this for two-plus years. It's time for action."

The council's languorous approach since the issue was first raised in 2005 left a vacuum that allowed entrepreneurs drawn to the lucrative cash-based business to establish Los Angeles as the epicenter of a marijuana boom.

The ordinance caps the number of dispensaries at 70 but makes an exception for those that registered with the city in 2007 and are still in business. That means L.A. could have about 150 stores.

Hundreds of other dispensaries will have to close, but some are already laying the groundwork to challenge the ordinance. Dan Lutz, a co-founder of the Green Oasis dispensary in Playa Vista, heads an organization that is weighing a lawsuit or referendum to force the council to put the ordinance before voters. "We're ready on two fronts," he said.

Medical marijuana advocates would have to collect just 27,425 valid signatures to force a referendum.

Garcetti said he expected there would be lawsuits because state law, on which the ordinance is based, is murky and because L.A., as the state's largest city, is an obvious target.

"Small ones have gotten away with it under the radar. But now that we're the big one, I think a lot of court cases will come out of it," he said.

But Garcetti said the city had to move forward to assert control over the medical marijuana outlets. "There's finally some tools for enforcement to shut down bad dispensaries that don't play by the rules," he said.

It could be a while before city officials can move to close dispensaries.

The council will vote a second time on the ordinance next Tuesday because the 11-3 tally fell short of the unanimous result needed to pass a law on the first vote. (Council members Bernard C. Parks, Jan Perry and Bill Rosendahl voted against the measure.) And it will not take effect until the council approves fees that collectives will have to pay to cover the city's costs to monitor them, which could take several weeks.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's office would not say whether he would sign the ordinance, but Sarah Hamilton, his press secretary, said he supports a cap on dispensaries and buffer zones that will "help protect the safety of our communities while ensuring that those who truly need medical marijuana have safe and accessible places to get it."

It was May 2005 when Councilman Dennis Zine, a former L.A. police officer, first raised the issue, introducing a motion that asked the Police Department to investigate dispensaries. Two months later, the department reported that there were just four outlets but recommended that the council adopt tight controls on where they could locate.

Two years later, the City Council approved a moratorium on new dispensaries; and 186 registered to stay open. In October, a judge ruled that the moratorium was invalid, leaving the city almost powerless over dispensaries. That spurred the council to accelerate a process Zine called a "merry-go-round that wasn't stopping."

With the vote likely, Tuesday's debate drew a crowd. About 50 people spoke for nearly an hour.

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