Los Angeles City Council passes medical marijuana dispensary ordinance

January 18, 2010

John Hoeffel, Los Angeles Times

The Los Angeles City Council voted Tuesday to adopt a comprehensive medical marijuana ordinance that clamps strict controls on dispensaries, which have spread with a velocity that stunned city officials and angered some residents. Settling the last controversial issue on its list, the council decided to require the stores to locate at least 1,000 feet from so-called sensitive uses, such as schools, parks, libraries and other dispensaries. The decision to reject a 500-foot setback reflected the council's intent to write the most restrictive rules that would still allow dispensaries.

The ordinance, which emerged after 2 1/2 years of debate, will be one of the toughest in the state. It could douse the city's vivid anything-goes pot culture, which has been both celebrated and excoriated. The ordinance bans consumption at dispensaries, requires them to close by 8 p.m. and outlaws the ubiquitous neon cannabis-leaf signs.

Council members acknowledged that the ordinance is not perfect and is likely to please no one.

"It's going to be a living ordinance," said Council President Eric Garcetti, predicting that the body will have to tinker with the provisions. "I think there is much good in it. I think nobody will know how some of these things play out until we have them in practice, and we made a commitment to make sure that we continue to improve the ordinance."

Although some council members attempted to reopen debate on some contentious aspects and medical marijuana advocates urged a few last-minute alterations, council members pressed for a vote.

"Our moment is now. Our moment is today," Councilman Herb Wesson said. "We've been discussing this for two-plus years. It's time for action."

The council's languorous approach since the issue was first raised in 2005 left a vacuum that allowed entrepreneurs drawn to the lucrative cash-based business to establish Los Angeles as the epicenter of a marijuana boom.

The ordinance caps the number of dispensaries at 70 but makes an exception for those that registered with the city in 2007 and are still in business. That means L.A. could have about 150 stores.

Hundreds of other dispensaries will have to close, but some are already laying the groundwork to challenge the ordinance. Dan Lutz, a co-founder of the Green Oasis dispensary in Playa Vista, heads an organization that is weighing a lawsuit or referendum to force the council to put the ordinance before voters. "We're ready on two fronts," he said.

Medical marijuana advocates would have to collect just 27,425 valid signatures to force a referendum.

Garcetti said he expected there would be lawsuits because state law, on which the ordinance is based, is murky and because L.A., as the state's largest city, is an obvious target.

"Small ones have gotten away with it under the radar. But now that we're the big one, I think a lot of court cases will come out of it," he said.

But Garcetti said the city had to move forward to assert control over the medical marijuana outlets. "There's finally some tools for enforcement to shut down bad dispensaries that don't play by the rules," he said.

It could be a while before city officials can move to close dispensaries.

The council will vote a second time on the ordinance next Tuesday because the 11-3 tally fell short of the unanimous result needed to pass a law on the first vote. (Council members Bernard C. Parks, Jan Perry and Bill Rosendahl voted against the measure.) And it will not take effect until the council approves fees that collectives will have to pay to cover the city's costs to monitor them, which could take several weeks.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's office would not say whether he would sign the ordinance, but Sarah Hamilton, his press secretary, said he supports a cap on dispensaries and buffer zones that will "help protect the safety of our communities while ensuring that those who truly need medical marijuana have safe and accessible places to get it."

It was May 2005 when Councilman Dennis Zine, a former L.A. police officer, first raised the issue, introducing a motion that asked the Police Department to investigate dispensaries. Two months later, the department reported that there were just four outlets but recommended that the council adopt tight controls on where they could locate.

Two years later, the City Council approved a moratorium on new dispensaries; and 186 registered to stay open. In October, a judge ruled that the moratorium was invalid, leaving the city almost powerless over dispensaries. That spurred the council to accelerate a process Zine called a "merry-go-round that wasn't stopping."

With the vote likely, Tuesday's debate drew a crowd. About 50 people spoke for nearly an hour.

Medical marijuana advocates pressed the council to relax the location restrictions. They believe a rule that dispensaries cannot be across an alley from a residential lot will make it almost impossible to find sites. Several asked the council to create an exception to the buffer zones for dispensaries that can show they are good neighbors.

"I am urging you to make sure that the good dispensaries are allowed to stay open," said Richard Eastman, an AIDS patient who has addressed the council on the issue for years in his boombox voice.

The restrictions adopted by the council could prove difficult for dispensaries. A city analysis showed that with a 1,000-foot setback from sensitive uses, most that meet the criteria to stay open will have to find new locations within six months.

But neighborhood activists, including Eagle Rock's Michael Larsen, asked the council to stick with the most restrictive approach. "I'm very relieved that it is pretty much over because it's been a long road," he said later.

The vote, which followed a thunderclap that briefly stilled debate, came almost as an anticlimax. It was celebrated with just a smattering of applause, and Garcetti swiftly moved the council on to other business.

Councilman Ed Reyes, who has overseen the drafting of the ordinance, said he believed the council would have to return to some issues, such as controls over cultivation. "I don't think we are there yet," he said.

The ordinance, which grew from five pages to 17, goes much farther than others in California to regulate the internal operations of collectives. It bars them from operating for profit, requires them to pay employees "reasonable wages and benefits" and rules out bonuses. It requires them to maintain extensive records and to submit an annual accountant-verified audit. It prohibits operators from running more than one dispensary. And it allows people buying marijuana to join only one collective, though it provides no mechanism to enforce that rule.

The LAPD, already staggered by budgetary constraints, will have to scrutinize the books to ensure that operators are not making a profit but just covering their costs. The department has estimated that it would cost $1.3 million to monitor 70 collectives and would require a lieutenant, 11 detectives, an auditor and a clerk to do the job.

Once the ordinance takes effect, the city attorney's office will launch enforcement efforts.

"Our focus will be closing the rogue operators," said Jane Usher, a special assistant city attorney.

Usher said the city attorney's office would send letters to those dispensary operators telling them they must close. She said that based on experience, her office expects that at least a third will voluntarily comply.

The city could then take the holdouts to court, a process that could prove time-consuming and costly.

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