Council approves new pot clinic ordinance

January 18, 2010

Rick Orlov, Contra Costa Times

After three years of heated debate, the Los Angeles City Council on Tuesday tentatively approved a measure to rein in the rapid growth of medical marijuana dispensaries and regulate their operations. The measure is expected to pass in a final vote next week, but it left supporters and opponents of the controversial clinics equally unhappy.

Among other things, the plan prohibits dispensaries from operating within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, libraries and other "safe areas." It would allow 137 existing dispensaries to continue operating, but could force up to 98 of those to relocate.

Councilman Bill Rosendahl, an outspoken supporter of the clinics, was one of the dissenters in the 11-3 vote Tuesday. Rosendahl said the measure is too restrictive and would lead to lawsuits that he predicted the city would lose.

"I'm sure people are lining up to sue us," Rosendahl said.

Rosendahl is also concerned that the proposed ordinance could drive marijuana sales back to the streets.

Council members Bernard Parks and Jan Perry joined Rosendahl to oppose the plan and Tom LaBonge was absent.

To pass on a first vote, a measure must receive a unanimous decision with at least 12 votes. But on a second vote, it just needs eight yes votes.

After so many months of wrangling, many council members were in the mood to simply push the measure through and move on.

"Our moment is now, our moment is today," Councilman Herb Wesson implored his colleagues. "We've been discussing it for two-plus years. Let us vote on this and deal with the changes later. We don't know what the unintended consequences will be and we can come back and fix this."

Councilman Richard Alarc n said the council should move forward and adopt the measure "as an experiment."

"Let's just get (the ordinance) out of here, and when we see what happens, figure out how we can improve upon it," he said.

Los Angeles has become the center of the statewide debate on the medical marijuana issue over the past year with estimates that nearly 1,000 of the clinics have opened since the city approved an interim control ordinance in 2007.

The new city measure will allow 137 operators - the ones that were open before the 2007 ordinance - to stay in business even if they have to move. However, if any close again, they will not be allowed to reopen unless there are fewer than 70 clinics in business.

Don Duncan, state director for medical-marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, called the council act "a bittersweet victory."

"Although it's historic, the passage has been tempered by restrictions that threaten to wipe out nearly all dispensaries in Los Angeles," Duncan said.

"The debate is over, we now have an ordinance. We still need to work with city government and community members in the coming months to address its shortcomings."

The state measure that voters approved to authorize medical marijuana said the facilities should be nonprofit, although authorities have disagreed over how to interpret that provision. The debate has focused over whether that means they cannot accept any payments at all from patients.

The new city ordinance aims to make sure collectives are not operating for profit by having an independent certified public accountant audit them every year and submit the findings to the city controller. Building and Safety inspectors and police officers would have to examine the location.

However, authorities could not look into patients' records without a search warrant, subpoena or court order.

The ordinance requires collectives to be open between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. and enforce stringent security measures - including bars on the windows, closed-circuit cameras, burglar alarms, and security guards patrolling a two-block radius around the location.

As an additional precaution, collectives cannot store more than $200 in cash overnight and would have to make twice-daily bank drops.

The council, however, eliminated restrictions on how much medical marijuana can be stored at a dispensary, stating only that dispensary operators must cultivate the medical marijuana "in strict accordance with state law." 

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