L.A. Agrees to Limit Medical-Marijuana Dispensaries

December 08, 2009

Tamara Audi, Wall Street Journal

The Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday delayed a vote on a much-anticipated medical marijuana ordinance, asking planning officials to return next week with information on how many dispensaries could be closed because they are near homes, schools and public gathering sites.

Council members indicated a vote could come in January on the draft ordinance, which would provide guidelines to greatly reduce the number of marijuana storefronts and push them out of neighborhoods and into industrial areas. The City Council agreed Tuesday to limit the number of dispensaries to 70.

When the state passed a law allowing for medical-marijuana cooperatives in 2004, Los Angeles never set forth guidelines for how they should operate. That led to the rampant growth of dispensaries: The number in the city is estimated at 1,000, making medical marijuana one of the city's fastest-growing industries.

As more dispensaries opened, police, city officials and residents complained that many were illegal cash businesses that had little to do with medical care. The city decided to crack down.

"Today we took the first step in regaining the trust of the residents of Los Angeles by protecting the integrity and safety of our communities while...offering medical marijuana to those who truly need it," Councilman José Huizar said in an emailed statement Tuesday evening.

The council also mandated a 1,000-foot buffer between medical dispensaries and residential-use areas.

Despite the cap, more than 70 dispensaries could be allowed to remain open if they meet the new guidelines. Tuesday night's decision gave preference to 137 dispensaries that had registered with the city early on. Those dispensaries would have 180 days to comply with the new regulations, but many of them are expected to close.

Medical-marijuana advocates said they were against "arbitrary caps" on the number of dispensaries, but said the new regulations proved that it is possible to regulate medical marijuana on a large scale.

"This is a huge milestone. It definitely sends a message to the rest of the county that the second-largest city in the nation has recognized the need for legal distribution," said Kris Hermes, a spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, a medical-marijuana advocacy group.

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