Plan to limit new medical marijuana dispensaries OK'd by council

August 01, 2007

Rick Orlov, Los Angeles Daily News

Pitting itself against the U.S. government, the Los Angeles City Council approved plans Wednesday to limit new medical-marijuana dispensaries, regulate existing ones and urge a moratorium on recent clinic raids by federal agents.

Despite warnings that it is treading on legally treacherous ground, the council voted 10-2 to adopt the plan amid concerns that hundreds of illegal clinics have sprouted up since 1996, when California voters approved Proposition 215 allowing the use of medicinal marijuana.

"When (the) law was first passed, we had two clinics operating in the city," said Councilman Dennis Zine, who proposed the plan to regulate operators. "Now we have more than 400.

"If we fail to act, we will have 800 or more in a few years. We need to take action to control the ones that are operating illegally and make sure that those people who need help get it."

But Councilmen Bernard Parks and Greig Smith opposed the measure, saying it puts Los Angeles at odds with the Food and Drug Administration, which has not approved marijuana for medicinal use, and other federal agencies that continue to list marijuana as a controlled substance.

"That is the law of the land," Parks said after being told that the U.S. Supreme Court has rejected the medical-marijuana argument. "People say there is a disagreement, but it appears to be on only one side. The federal law takes precedence over local laws."

Smith concurred with Parks.

"It is problematic that we are going against federal laws," Smith said. "We may not like the federal law, but it is the law. We all took an oath where we were sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution. The fact California law is in conflict is unfortunate, but we should not have our own laws."

Councilman Richard Alarc n dismissed Smith's argument as being a "God Bless America" speech.

"American history shows us that this is a classic challenge over states' rights and federal rights," Alarc n said. "This is part of the process of change as we go through a transition from a society that believed all marijuana use was wrong to one that is saying there are possibly good uses for medicinal marijuana.

"The federal government just hasn't caught up with the future of America."

Under the proposal approved Tuesday, Los Angeles police and city departments would draft clinic regulations on hours of operation, where such businesses could be located and security.

Existing dispensaries also would have to register with city government, get a state seller's permit and show proof of insurance.

Zine also said he has written to Drug Enforcement Administration officials asking them to stop raiding marijuana dispensaries until the city has completed its review.

Local DEA officials said Wednesday that they would continue to enforce federal laws.

"Possession and distribution of marijuana, in any form, is a violation of federal laws," said Special Agent Sarah Pullen, an agency spokeswoman. "There are no plans to stop enforcement."

Councilwoman Janice Hahn asked that representatives of the Los Angeles Police Department report to the council on the issue.  

"I also don't understand why we can't come to an agreement with the DEA on this," Hahn said. "On Tuesday, we all stood side by side talking about working together when it came to gangs.

"Why can't they agree with us to have a moratorium on raids until we develop a policy and try to resolve these differences?"

But even as Los Angeles moved to tighten restrictions on medical-marijuana facilities, some Berkeley City Council members were calling for new laws to protect the businesses.

The calls came after a city-sanctioned medical-marijuana dispensary had its assets frozen earlier this week by the LAPD.

The Berkeley Patient Group, which serves about 5,000 patients in the Berkeley and Oakland areas, was notified Monday that its bank account was frozen by the LAPD during a joint operation with the DEA.

The operation targeted about 10 dispensaries in Los Angeles, including the California Patients Group, a sister organization to the Berkeley-based business.

The freeze on accounts prevents the group from accessing cash it had saved to pay state sales taxes.

"We are a legally licensed dispensary. To be targeted like this is absurd," said Debby Goldsberry, speaking for the group. "They snuck in quietly and took all of our assets. We want them back."

Pullen, the DEA spokeswoman, said she could not discuss how much money was involved.

Oakland Tribune Staff Writer Paul T. Rosynsky contributed to this report.

rick.orlov@dailynews.com

(213) 978-0390



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