LA council OKs plan to close most pot clinics

January 25, 2010

, Associated Press

The Los Angeles City Council gave final approval today to a medical marijuana ordinance aimed at ending the proliferation of illegal dispensaries while giving qualified patients access to the drug. The 9-3 vote prompted some operators and patients of the estimated 1,000 dispensaries across the city to threaten lawsuits.

Many of them had taken advantage of a legal loophole to open dispensaries in the midst of a moratorium that began in late 2007. The ordinance approved today will shut most of them down, and force some legitimate dispensaries to relocate.

Councilman Dennis Zine said he believes the ordinance will be able to withstand legal challenges.

Referring to operators and patients of illegal dispensaries, Zine said, "They're going to sue because they want to use marijuana when they want, where they want. They couldn't care less about the communities, the impact on neighborhoods.

"They just want to use marijuana to get high," he said. "We want it strictly for medical purposes."

City Attorney Carmen Trutanich issued a statement saying, "With the passage of the ordinance, the city of Los Angeles takes an important step forward in ensuring that seriously ill and deserving patients have reliable access to save and lawful sources of medical marijuana that are subject to regulation, inspection, and free from harmful contaminants. California law requires nothing less."

The ordinance sets a cap of 70 dispensaries in Los Angeles but temporarily allows more than double that number to stay open -- specifically, the 187 dispensaries that registered with the city before the moratorium took effect -- provided they adhere to certain restrictions.

If any of the 187 dispensaries closes or goes out of business, it will not be replaced until the overall number is reduced to 70.

The ordinance requires dispensaries be at least 1,000 feet away from so- called "sensitive use" sites, namely schools, public parks, public libraries, religious institutions; licensed child care facilities, youth centers, rehab centers, and other dispensaries.

Instead of mandating a similar buffer between dispensaries and homes, the council agreed to merely bar dispensaries from being "on a lot abutting, across the street or alley from, or having a common corner with a residentially zoned lot or a lot improved with residential use."

The provision would force the relocation of the dispensary where Oliver Summers, a member of Americans for Safe Access and the Greater Los Angeles Collectives Alliance, volunteers. He said a lawsuit is a possibility.

"Unfortunately, we've gone as far as we can without doing any kind of litigation or lawsuit," Summers said. "I would personally like to avoid it, but unfortunately they've left us no choice and this is the only way."

But Don Duncan, California director of Americans for Safe Access, said the organization will put off legal action while amendments to the ordinance are discussed.

The ordinance will take effect after being signed by the mayor, and after the City Council approves certain fees for dispensaries. However, amendments may still be proposed by the City Council's Planning and Land Use Management Committee, which plans to hold meetings on medical marijuana in the weeks ahead.

"This is not the end," said Councilman Ed Reyes, who chairs the committee.

"We still have a lot of work to do," he said. "It's a living document so it's going to continue to change."

Reyes said the committee will hear proposals about where dispensaries should be located, where they should be required to grow the medical marijuana, how they can forge better relationships with the medical field and other issues.

To adhere to the 1996 Compassionate Use Act and 2003 Medical Marijuana Program Act, which prohibited the sale of medical marijuana, the ordinance states that "no collective shall operate for profit."

Rather, it allows "cash and in-kind contributions, reimbursements and reasonable compensation provided by members toward the collective's actual expenses for the growth, cultivation and provision of medical marijuana ... in strict compliance with state law."

To make sure collectives are not operating for profit, an independent certified public accountant will audit the collectives every year and submit the findings to the City Controller. Building and Safety inspectors and police officers will have to examine dispensary locations.

However, authorities cannot 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 their 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 eliminated restrictions on how much medical marijuana can be stored at a dispensary, stating only that operators must cultivate the medical marijuana "in strict accordance with state law."

Patients can be a member of only one dispensary, though they may obtain medical marijuana from another dispensary in case of a medical emergency.

An operator can run only one dispensary in the city. Operators cannot have been convicted of a felony or a crime of moral turpitude within the last 10 years. Operators also cannot be on parole or probation for the sale or distribution of a controlled substance.

Independent and certified laboratories must test the medical marijuana regularly for pesticides and other contaminants. Operators may cultivate the medical marijuana on-site, provided the activity is not visible from the exterior of the building and measures are taken to prevent unauthorized entry.

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