Torrance fails to block marijuana

July 19, 2006

Ian Hanigan, Daily Breeze

A proposed ordinance that would have denied business licenses to dispensaries of medical marijuana stalled at this week's Torrance City Council meeting, falling one vote short of passage.

The council, normally a seven-member panel, was down to five Tuesday night. As a result, the final vote was 3-2 in favor of keeping licenses out of the hands of businesses that violate federal law.  Under the city charter, it takes four votes to enact new ordinances.

Mayor Frank Scotto came out in favor of the proposal, as did council members Hope Witkowsky and Tom Brewer. Pat McIntyre and Bill Sutherland voted against it.

Councilman Paul Nowatka was out of the country, and the seventh seat has been vacant since Scotto's inauguration as mayor.

With only one more vote needed, Nowatka now plays a key role. City Attorney John Fellows suggested that if the councilman is interested in backing the ordinance, he can ask for the item to resurface at a future council session.

At this week's meeting, Assistant City Attorney Ron Pohl pointed out that the proposed change was not based on a single establishment or even a specific type of business. Rather, he said, it would be intended to prevent any business that violates federal law from setting up shop in Torrance.

"We're simply saying we're not going to license businesses that want to open in a strip mall and start selling marijuana or any other thing that violates federal law," Pohl said. "We're not going to issue a business license (to a printing company) that's going to counterfeit American dollars."

But it was a local cannabis dispensary on Hawthorne Boulevard that prompted the drafting of the ordinance, which was recommended by Police Chief James Herren. Green Cross of Torrance, which operates discreetly from a storefront with reflective glass, opened sometime around April.

On Tuesday night, several audience members defended Green Cross -- and the general need for a medical marijuana distributor in Torrance.

Amanda Brazel, a spokeswoman for the group Americans for Safe Access, said patients afflicted with painful illnesses shouldn't have to sit in traffic to find relief. While possession and distribution of medical marijuana is illegal under federal law, she noted that California voters have decided otherwise, and she urged the council to side with them.

"The federal government is out of touch with what the people need," Brazel said, "and the patients need this medicine."

Local activist Bonnie Mae Barnard said she would consider herself "the most anti-drug person" around. But, she said, she has witnessed the benefits of medicinal marijuana while caring for a friend who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

"I'm just concerned that there is a real need out there," she said.  Proposition 215, also known as the Compassionate Use Act, was endorsed by a majority of California voters in 1996, allowing doctors to recommend marijuana to patients being treated for cancer, anorexia, AIDS, chronic pain, glaucoma and other illnesses.

However, the initiative is at odds with federal law, and local municipalities have been caught in the middle.

In recent months, several area cities -- Redondo Beach, Hawthorne, Lawndale and Hermosa Beach -- have adopted moratoriums to study the issue and explore possible zoning options for medical marijuana dispensaries, also known as co-ops.

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