Medical marijuana stores lose city license

October 17, 2006

Fred Ortega, Pasadena Star

COVINA - The City Council has revoked the business licenses of three shops selling medical marijuana in the city, the latest move against such establishments in the San Gabriel Valley.

Several cities in the Valley - including El Monte, Monterey Park and Monrovia - have passed temporary moratoriums against the establishment of medical marijuana shops, also called cannabis dispensaries. Pasadena recently instituted a permanent ban against such businesses.

But the Covina City Council's unanimous action Tuesday night was the first time a Valley city has taken away a license from an existing pot store. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors tried to shut down a cannabis dispensary operating in Hacienda Heights, but a judge later shot down the board's decision.

The three dispensaries in Covina - United Caregivers Group Inc. on Second Avenue and So Cal Consultants and Legal Ease Inc., on Arrow Highway - had each received licenses to operate retail businesses in the city. Legal Ease had received its license in January and United Caregivers and So Cal Consultants had been operating since July and June, respectively.

But the business operators were not up front with the city when they applied for their business licenses, said Bobbi Kemp, Covina's public information supervisor.

"They signed under penalty of perjury that they would uphold all local, state or federal laws," Kemp said. "The bottom line is that they promised to do that, and they didn't."

The owners of Legal Ease and So Cal Consultants could not be reached for comment. But Shawn Tabibian, a lawyer representing United Caregivers, said the city should have been well aware of what his clients were applying for when they granted the license.

"My clients were operating well within the law, and it is unfortunate that they are coming out and revoking their license at this point," Tabibian said. "They are providing safe access to patients with valid recommendations from their physicians, and they are doing this pursuant to state law."

The business license application for United Caregivers stated the shop would be a "prescription only, herbal only" business, according to city records. The other two dispensaries stated they would "educate and assist" patients who qualify for medical marijuana use under state law.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in July 2005 that federal authorities can prosecute growers, sellers and those who use marijuana, even with a doctor's recommendation.

But that decision is in direct conflict with several state laws that allow people with certain illnesses to use marijuana for medicinal purposes.

City officials found out about the establishments in September. Visits by Covina police revealed marijuana being sold behind glass cases, as well as food products containing marijuana such as brownies. Employees said all customers had to present California identification, as well as a doctor's prescription or recommendation, before being allowed to purchase any drugs.

The city has to ensure that Covina businesses do not operate outside the law, Kemp said.

The council's decision means at least one of the dispensaries - United Caregivers - will stop operating in the city immediately, Tabibian said.

"My clients have no intention of operating without a valid business license," said Tabibian, adding that his clients haven't decided if they will challenge the council's decision in court. "They are making the city of Covina an unsafe place, where patients will have to go to other, illegal sources, to acquire their dosages,"

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