Pot clinics consider referendum to fight closure

July 24, 2012

Rick Orlov, LA Daily News

Supporters of medical marijuana clinics said Wednesday they are exploring legal options, including a potential ballot measure, to block a new city ordinance closing all dispensaries.

"We think it's absolutely outrageous what the City Council did, and we will be proceeding with our supporters," said Kris Hermes, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access.

Don Duncan, executive director for the organization, said they are developing the plan of action for a ballot measure that would repeal the ban and allow at least 182 dispensaries to remain open - those that were operating before the city's 2007 moratorium was imposed.

"We want to have the ground operation in place and all the other things we will need to qualify this," Duncan said, estimating it could cost up to $60,000 to qualify a measure.

"And, then, if we do qualify, we will have to prepare for a full campaign with mailings, posters and advertising."

The City Council measure adopted on Tuesday bans all clinics operating in the city - estimated at more than 900 - but of those, 782 have registered with the city. The shops must be closed 30 days after the ordinance is signed by the mayor.

Elsewhere around the region, dispensaries are banned in Beverly Hills and Glendale. Culver City doesn't technically have a ban, but its zoning laws don't allow for them, and West Hollywood currently only allows four dispensaries to operate.

On Wednesday morning, the mood was largely sour among those who make a living selling marijuana in the San Fernando Valley.

As a pair of young men waited on a leather couch outside his office to see him, Dr. Elsagav Shaham, who works at Sherman Oaks Herbal Recommendation, railed against the council's action, saying it was a "political decision."

"We've all been brainwashed that this is dope," said Shaham, who signs off on the paperwork needed for patients to obtain medical marijuana.

The clinic, which charges $49 a client, doesn't deny anyone approval for the drug, Shaham said, adding that he believes in marijuana's curative powers.

Other dispensary employees working near Ventura Boulevard and Van Nuys Boulevard refused to comment on the council's ruling, saying they weren't allowed to talk to the media.

Amid a heavy stench of marijuana, a glassy-eyed young woman working at the Emerald Palace dispensary in Studio City would only say: "We hope everything works out."

Regardless of the possible ballot measure, some dispensaries may eventually be allowed to stay open. The City Council also agreed Tuesday to study ways to let 182 clinics registered under the original dispensary rules reopen.

The Toluca Lake Collective, which opened in 2006 in North Hollywood, is hoping to qualify for the exemption.

Joe Barajas, an employee at TLC, believes the ban will boost their business if they are allowed to stay open.

"It has hurt us to have all these dispensaries," Barajas said.

If the dispensaries move to ask voters to overturn the ban, they will have 30 days after the ordinance is finalized to submit the signatures in order to qualify for a May ballot, which would coincide with any runoff election in the race for mayor, helping to drive voter turnout.

Hermes said the referendum would need about 30,000 signatures of registered voters.

Details, including the financing of the qualification drive and any campaign, are still being developed, Hermes

Dr. Elsagav Shaham, at Sherman Oaks Herbal Recommendation, is a proponent of medicinal marijuana. Wednesday, July 25, 2012. (Michael Owen Baker/Staff Photographer)

"We're still working on the language but the essence will be to permanently repeal the ordinance to preserve the limited immunities under state law for medical marijuana," Hermes said.

Los Angeles, like other cities in the state, has been hampered in developing regulations regarding the clinics by a number of lawsuits and conflicting court rulings.

The state Supreme Court is expected to resolve the issue later this year.

Councilman Mitch Englander, who co-authored the ban on the clinics, said he was not worried about the prospect of a referendum.

"It's their right if they want to try to qualify a referendum, but I don't think it will pass," Englander said. "The feedback I am getting from the community shows (the ban) has wide support. I don't think people will vote to bring these clinics back."

Englander and Councilman Jose Huizar said they were prompted to call for the ban based on community opposition to the clinics and the inability of police to enforce regulations on dispensaries.

Police Chief Charlie Beck endorsed the ban, saying there has been an increase in crime around the clinics.

Some local residents also complain the clinics sell marijuana to anyone.

Duncan said he is worried about what will happen at clinics in other cities in Los Angeles County. He serves on a board in West Hollywood that oversees the clinic issue "and I know we could not handle all the people from Los Angeles."

National pharmacy chains are prohibited under federal law from filling medical marijuana prescriptions, said Mike DeAngeles, a spokesman for CVS Pharmacies.

The last referendum against a city ordinance was in 2007 about the city's living wage requirement on hotels near Los Angeles International Airport.

The measure qualified for the ballot but the City Council was able to avoid calling an election by changing the wording of its ordinance. The opponents dropped plans for a new referendum.

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