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L.A. City Council finally passes medical marijuana ordinance

After years of debate, the city will drastically limit the number of dispensaries and restrict where they can operate. Advocates are threatening to challenge the law in court.

January 27, 2010|By John Hoeffel
  • Barry Kramer of California Patients Alliance on Melrose Avenue is "scrambling" to find a new location because of the ordinance's land-use restrictions.
Barry Kramer of California Patients Alliance on Melrose Avenue is "scrambling"… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

The Los Angeles City Council, without debate, gave final approval Tuesday to a medical marijuana ordinance that will impose some of the toughest rules in the state but was assailed by advocates who said the law will drastically restrict access to the drug.

The measure, which was finally passed more than 4 1/2 years after the council started to discuss the issue, will do little to calm the contentious debate over how Los Angeles should restrain a dispensary boom that has seen hundreds of pot stores cluster on the city's major boulevards.

At least two organizations representing dispensaries are deciding whether to sue the city; one of them is also weighing whether to collect signatures for a referendum. The city attorney, who says state law does not allow collectives to sell marijuana, continues to press a lawsuit against an Eagle Rock dispensary in a bid to get the courts to decide the issue. And the Los Angeles County district attorney is prosecuting dispensary operators.

The ordinance, which aims to erase the carnival-esque image of Los Angeles as the capital of a weed resurgence, will allow city officials to shut down hundreds of dispensaries. But it will also impose restrictions on where they can be located, limits that operators say will eliminate most sites outside of isolated industrial parks.

"It's a disaster for patients," said James Shaw, director of the Union of Medical Marijuana Patients.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa plans to sign the ordinance because it reduces the number of dispensaries and keeps them 1,000 feet from schools and places of worship.

"This legislation isn't perfect, but the mayor feels it is a step in the right direction, and it's time to focus our attention on other pressing issues," spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton said.

The 9-3 vote was the second on the ordinance, which fell short last week of the unanimous tally needed to pass a law on the first vote. Bernard C. Parks, Jan Perry and Bill Rosendahl voted against it both times.

After the vote, council members expressed relief that an ordinance would be in place soon, even if it draws legal challenges.

"I knew we'd get here eventually; I just didn't think it would take so long," said Councilman Dennis Zine, who raised the issue in May 2005 when there were just four storefront dispensaries. "We're doing an ordinance that we believe is lawful and that we believe can withstand lawsuits. They've threatened lawsuits for many, many years, so whatever we did in an ordinance we were going to be sued."

Councilman Ed Reyes, who led the effort to draft the ordinance, acknowledged it may need changes. "We tried to interpret the state law for the way it was written," he said.

The law will not take effect until the City Council approves the fees that dispensaries will have to pay to cover the cost of registration, a process that could take at least another 30 days, according to city officials.

The ordinance caps the number of dispensaries at 70, but makes an exception for those that registered with the city clerk in 2007 and remain in their original locations or moved just once after their landlords were threatened with federal prosecution. City officials believe there are about 150 such dispensaries.

Among other restrictions aimed at ending L.A.'s late-night pot scene, dispensaries will be required to close by 8 p.m., marijuana use will not be allowed at the stores, and patients will be restricted to one collective. The 17-page ordinance also imposes controls aimed at preventing collectives from making profits, which are illegal under state law.

Neighborhood activists, who have been vastly outnumbered at every City Council meeting, urged the lawmakers to act quickly to enforce the ordinance. Lisa Sarkin, with the Studio City Neighborhood Council, noted that there were 13 dispensaries in the area. "I can't imagine how this could be necessary," she said.

Residents have complained about the over-concentration and have worried about crime. As if to underscore that concern, the Los Angeles Police Department sought the public’s help Tuesday to apprehend a suspect who robbed and shot an employee Jan. 8 at a dispensary on Reseda Boulevard in Northridge.

Hundreds of dispensaries opened in L.A. as the council slowly debated its proposed ordinance and failed to enforce a moratorium on dispensaries. City officials believe upward of 500 will be required to close.

Once the ordinance takes effect, the city attorney's office will send a series of letters to landlords and operators, a process that Special Assistant City Atty. Jane Usher estimated would take about 45 days. Based on past experience, the office expects at least a third to shut down. The city would take the others to court.

"The smoke should clear six months from the effective date of the ordinance," she said.

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