Medical cannabis proponents including, from right, Norma Schaffer, 59,… (Christina House / For the…)
A referendum to repeal a ban on medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles appears to be headed for the ballot, with pot shop supporters saying Wednesday that they have collected nearly twice the signatures required to force a citywide vote and key City Council members signaling that they won't try to stop it.
On Thursday, medical cannabis supporters plan to turn in the names of 50,000 voters who want the referendum included on the March ballot. If the signatures prove valid, officials will be required to temporarily suspend the ban, which was approved with much fanfare last month and was due to go into effect Sept. 6.
If that happens, the city will be back where it was before the ban, without any law regulating the distribution of the drug.
The referendum effort is being backed by patients and several groups, including the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 770, which started unionizing dispensary workers earlier this year, and the Greater Los Angeles Collective Alliance, an association of dispensary operators who registered with the city before a moratorium on new pot shops was enacted in 2007.
Members of both groups admit that they are using the referendum as a political tactic to force lawmakers to overturn the ban and adopt a more lenient ordinance that would allow the pre-moratorium dispensaries to remain open.
Rick Icaza, president of the union, said at a news conference Wednesday that he wants to avoid a ballot measure.
"We hope the City Council will come back to us now and say, 'Let's sit down at the table,' " Icaza said. He noted that if the referendum goes forward, it would share a ballot with the mayoral primary contest, the city attorney's race and eight council elections, forcing candidates to pick sides on what has been a polarizing issue.
If the referendum signatures are certified by election officials, the council will have 20 days to repeal the ban or put the issue on a ballot.
Councilman Paul Koretz, who is pushing the ordinance that would allow the city's oldest dispensaries to continue operating, said he hopes the council will overturn the ban, saying that the city needs a small number of "well-regulated and patient-centered dispensaries."
But Councilman Jose Huizar disagreed, saying that the council's decision last month to ban all storefront dispensaries marked a shift in the city's approach to medical marijuana. Like Council President Herb Wesson, who said through a spokesman Wednesday that "there are no plans to revisit the ordinance," he believes the issue should go on the ballot.
"We voted," Huizar said. "We sent a clear message about the direction we want to go in."
He asked why dispensary supporters aren't trying to push state lawmakers to clarify the rules governing the distribution of the drug. Confusion over exactly what regulations cities are allowed has resulted in a flurry of lawsuits across California and sometimes contradictory court rulings.
"Are they really about providing access to patients who need it, or are they about profit?" Huizar asked of the activists.
Don Duncan, whose group, Americans for Safe Access, is also part of the referendum effort, said "it is the interest of the patients we're looking at, not the collective owners." He noted that under Koretz's proposal to allow the city's original dispensaries to stay open, the several hundred shops that opened after the moratorium would be forced to shut down.
At the news conference, he shared a stage with several patients who said medical marijuana had changed their lives, including Freddie Metcalf, 58, a retired city of Los Angeles plumber who has a disease that causes inflammation of his body tissue.
Metcalf took issue with a provision of the ban, which prohibits the sale of cannabis but allows groups of three people or fewer to cultivate and share the drug. He said that he had tried to grow it behind his South L.A. home, but that the plant was stolen from his yard. Besides, he said, "I can't afford the water bill, I can't afford the electric bill."
Earlier this month, the city cited the ordinance in letters to the owners and landlords of 762 registered dispensaries, ordering them to shut down. The move was hailed by some neighborhood groups which have complained that dispensaries attract crime and loitering.
If the ban is suspended, it's unclear what the city will be able to do to close dispensaries.
Jane Usher, special assistant to City Atty. Carmen Trutanich, said a now-expired city ordinance regulating pot dispensaries included a clause saying that after expiration, medical marijuana collectives of four or more people would be required to shut down. She said that gives the city the legal authority to close dispensaries.
Dispensary supporters say they don't think so. They say they are prepared to fight on that issue too if it comes to it.