Council OKs cap on pot dispensaries

December 07, 2009

Rick Orlov, Los Angeles Daily News

 After years of delay, the City Council on Tuesday adopted a cap on the number of medical marijuana dispensaries allowed in Los Angeles, potentially leading to the shuttering of hundreds of the clinics that have popped up around the city in the past two years. The council also imposed new rules on clinic locations and operations that one council member said were so restrictive that they would prevent any clinics from legally operating almost anywhere in the city.

"Finally, we are getting a handle on this," Councilman Dennis Zine said after the 10-3 vote to impose the cap.

"What this means is we are sending a message to the ones that opened illegally that we will be coming to close you down."

The council spent six hours in sometimes-laborious debate Tuesday and will return to the matter today to consider the final draft of the ordinance.

The council's principal action was to set a goal of having 70 clinics in the city, while allowing the 137 that opened under the city's original provisions to remain in operation.

Councilmen Ed Reyes, Bill Rosendahl and Tom LaBonge opposed the cap.

Officials estimate the city has 800 to 1,000 clinics - most of which have opened in the past two years as the council considered ways to regulate them and imposed a temporary moratorium that most clinic operators ignored.

Dispensaries and clinics that opened without city permission will be given a grace period to close down their operations.

"If they don't, we will be there to close them down," Zine said.

But Councilman Paul Koretz warned that other limitations - banning clinics within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, libraries and residential zones - will result in an unofficial ban on the clinics.

"There is no place in my district where a clinic would be allowed to open because the residential zones come up right against the commercial," Koretz said. "What we are doing, in effect, is saying we will not allow these."

Medical marijuana clinic operators and advocates have been fighting the council's efforts and have threatened legal action if the city tries to ban the sale of medical marijuana.

"We want to emphasize that the sale of medical marijuana is legal not only in Los Angeles, but across California," said Joe Elford, chief counsel for medical marijuana advocate Americans for Safe Access, in a written statement. "We are prepared to take this issue to the courts, if necessary, to show that Los Angeles and other cities may regulate the sale of medical marijuana, but they cannot ban such sales."

Reyes, who chairs the Planning and Land Use Management Committee, acknowledged it will be difficult for the collectives to open in parts of the city.

"This definitely diminishes the areas that would be eligible," Reyes said. "But we can come back and address that at a later time if there is problem."

Rosendahl said he believed the issue would be resolved only when the use of marijuana is legalized in the country.

"It's a shame we can't see it legalized like it should be so we wouldn't have to go through all this," Rosendahl said.

Councilman Jose Huizar had sought the cap of 70 - two for each planning district in the city - but agreed to allow the others to continue to operate.

During the debate, council members went over issues ranging from eliminating private groves where marijuana is being grown to fill the need of the clinics to the siting of the shops.

Los Angeles Police Department Commander Pat Gannon said the agency wants to eliminate the private groves and require the clinics to grow the marijuana on site.

Gannon also said the department believes it will need to assign 14 officers, working full time, to enforce the city ordinance at an estimated cost of $1.3 million.

One additional problem noted was what officials called "the gap" with how the clinics get the marijuana to provide to their collective's members.

"They could be breaking the law to comply with the law," Councilman Bernard Parks said.

Deputy City Attorney Jane Usher said it was an issue raised in a court case.

"It could be something that will continue to be reviewed by the courts," Usher said.

Several council members - Parks, Jan Perry and Herb Wesson - raised questions as they sought tougher provisions on the opening of dispensaries.

"If we don't have protective language, it will flip this ordinance," Parks said. "All you have to do is drive the thoroughfares in older communities and see the problems this would create. We need protections for communities with large industrial areas where we have multiple uses."

The council members also voted to require limits on the pay of clinic operators to what is considered "reasonable compensation" for similar nonprofits and the work experience of the operators.

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