L.A. City Council weighs 'gentle' ban on medical marijuana clinics

June 16, 2012

Rick Orlov, Los Angeles Daily News

A "gentle ban" on medical marijuana clinics to be considered by the Los Angeles City Council this week could result in the closure of hundreds of dispensaries that the city has been struggling to control for years.

The City Council is expected to debate the latest proposal from Councilmen Jose Huizar and Mitch Englander on Friday at the same time it takes up a counter-proposal to allow up to 100 dispensaries to remain in operation.

Confusion over competing proposals has marked the debate over medical marijuana for years and has contributed to 800 clinics operating throughout the city - prompting complaints from residents, law enforcement and officials.

At the same time, it has created problems for those who voted to support medical marijuana and raised questions about how those who believe they need the drug will be able to get it.

"We need something that will work," said Councilman Dennis Zine. "We need to be able to find a way to control the problem operators, but allow people to have access to the marijuana."

Under the "gentle" ban, consumers and their caregivers will be allowed to grow their own marijuana for personal use.

But there is concern about the ability of all people being able to cultivate marijuana.

Another issue is money.

In 2010, local voters approved Measure M, placing a tax of $50 per $1,000 of revenue on the clinics.

The city Office of Finance said 233 clinics have been paying the tax, bringing in $2.4 million to city coffers since April 2011.

"This is not about money," insisted Councilman Paul Koretz, author of the alternative proposal to allow some clinics to continue operating. "This is about dealing with a nuisance while allowing people who need it to have access to medical marijuana."

Koretz said he agrees the number of clinics operating throughout the city needs to be controlled, but he believes there should be a way for people to access the drug.

One of the more vocal communities has been Studio City, where residents say the three-square mile neighborhood has 12 dispensaries - more than allowed in the entire city of West Hollywood.

"That's more than the number of pharmacies we have in Studio City," said Barry Johnson of the Studio City Residents Association.

Capt. Bill Hart, commanding officer of the LAPD's Gang and Narcotics Division, has been monitoring the clinics for criminal activity and working with area commanders on any problems.

If the City Council does adopt the "gentle" ban, Hart said, the department would hope to see voluntary compliance by the dispensaries to shut down.

"Those that do not close voluntarily will be subject to enforcement and prosecution," Hart said.

"The LAPD would work through each of the Narcotics Enforcement Details in the 21 area stations. But, with an estimated 800 clinics, it could take some time to close them all down."

Special Assistant City Attorney Jane Usher, who has been leading the city's legal team on the issue, said there is a 45-day period before the measure takes effect to give clinic owners time to shut down before facing legal action.

Kris Hermes of Americans for Safe Access, a pro-medical marijuana group, said his organization believes the city ban on clinics goes too far.

"There's absolutely no reason for Los Angeles to ban the distribution of medical marijuana, benefiting thousands of patients who will be forced to obtain their medication from the illicit market," Hermes said.

"There are more than 50 localities in California that have adopted ordinances regulating the distribution of medical marijuana, and they're not rushing to pass bans."

City officials say they have tried to reach a settlement with the dispensaries - dozens of suits have been filed against the city's proposals on the clinics.

However, a settlement ordinance that would have allowed some clinics to remain in operation failed to reach a consensus, with both sides blaming the other for its failure to win approval.

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