L.A. moves toward ban of medical marijuana dispensaries

January 12, 2012

Rick Orlov, Los Angeles Daily News

After years of struggling with the issue, the city of Los Angeles headed down the road Friday to a total ban on medical marijuana shops.

The City Council's Public Safety Committee sent to the Planning Commission a series of recommendations to ban the estimated 300 dispensaries now open until the state Supreme Court decides if the city can regulate pot shops.

Councilman Jose Huizar, whose Eastside district has 47 dispensaries, called for the ban even as he said he supports the right of people to have access to medical marijuana.

"But if there are no tools to control the dispensaries, we have no choice but to ban them until we see what happens in the Supreme Court," Huizar said.

A state appellate court, in what is known as the Pack decision, ruled that federal law banning marijuana pre-empted state and local measures allowing dispensaries to provide medical marijuana. It also banned the lottery system being considered by the city to allow some dispensaries to open.

As a result, city officials said Los Angeles basically has no way to regulate dispensaries, even as it is fighting some 60 lawsuits from pot shop operators against the city's previous attempts to create rules on where pot shops can open.

City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, in a rare appearance before a committee, said the lawsuits have tied up his office staff.

"We have people working nights and weekends to prepare for these cases and we have no choice,"

Trutanich said. "If we aren't prepared to be in court, we will lose these cases. That's why we decided the best course of action is to ban all the dispensaries."

Special Assistant City Attorney Jane Usher said they are proposing a "gentle ban."

"We will continue to allow patients and caregivers to cultivate and have access to marijuana," Usher said.

Kris Hermes, spokesman for the pro-medical marijuana group American for Safe Access, however, said dispensaries aren't giving patients anything that state law doesn't allow.

"The fact is many patients are unable to cultivate their own marijuana and need access to a safe supply," Hermes said.

"The city is being pretty devious in what it is trying to do and they are ignoring other court cases that do allow dispensaries to operate."

Hermes said an organized campaign is being launched with emails asking city officials to find ways to keep dispensaries operating.

"The issue here is whether the vast majority of patients in Los Angeles who need marijuana will have access to it," Hermes said.

Also, he said, the marketplace is helping to determine the number of clinics in operation.

At one point, the city had an estimated 700 to 1,000 dispensaries in operation.

That has fallen in recent years because there was not enough demand to support the operations, he said.

Councilman Mitch Englander, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, said the problem he has seen is the effect dispensaries have on neighboring businesses and residents.

"We all know of people who benefit from this, but we also need to look at what it has done to communities," Englander said.

"One of the things they do to communities - not necessarily the operators, but their patrons - is to create problems."

LAPD Capt. Bill Murphy of the Northeast Division, said he has received a number of complaints over the years from residents and others.

"We get complaints about the smells, about teens hanging around to buy the marijuana like they used to do outside liquor stores," Murphy said. "Residents see a problems with people drinking and smoking. We have congestion type issues."

If the measure is approved, Huizar said he would envision the city sending out letters, similar to eviction notices, telling the operators they will need to shut down.

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