City Council Approves Two Medical Marijuana Initiatives for May Ballot

January 28, 2013

Ajay Singh,

The Los Angeles City Council voted, 8-4, Tuesday to approve placing two medical marijuana initiatives on the May 21 ballot and gave preliminary support to a third initiative proposed by Council member Paul Koretz as a “superior option” based on the first two measures.

But because Council members José Huizar, Mitch Englander, Bernard Parks and Joe Buscaino opposed Koretz’s initiative, which would give the city new enforcement tools to regulate pot stores, the proposal will return to the council next week for a final vote. The four opponents also voted against the two other measures.

Huizar voted against the initiatives because “he believes the state needs to take some action—it created this mess and it should help us get out of it,” the council member’s director of communications, Rick Coca, told Patch. “On the other hand, [Huizar] is happy that the city council is recognizing there is a problem throughout the city and that we need to do whatever we can to shut down rogue dispensaries,” Coca said.

(The city council voted last week on the two initiatives that were placed on the May ballot on Tuesday. A second vote became necessary because last week’s 8-4 vote was not unanimous. According to council rules, such votes must be considered again by at least 10 sitting members.)

Koretz’s initiative has the backing of the United Farm and Commercial Workers union as well as Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocay and outreach organization. Although both groups sponsored one of the two initiatives, called the Committee to Protect Patients and Neighborhoods, they announced Monday that they were abandoning it in favor of the city council’s measure, according to a City News Service report. (The proposal will, however, still be on the May ballot.)

If the city council approves its own initiative next week, there will a total of three medical marijuana measures on the May ballot.

One of the initiatives is aimed at allowing about 100 medical marijuana dispensaries to continue operating under tighter restrictions, provided they can prove they were in existence before Sept. 14, 2007, when the city first tried to place a moratorium on new marijuana shops. The council had the option to either adopt the initiative as an ordinance or put it before voters in May.

The other initiative seeks mainly to increase from $50 to $60 the business tax on every $1,000 worth of marijuana sold.

“Neither is perfect,” Koretz told the city council. “One in particular would leave far too little regulation of dispensaries and would not be of service to our neighborhoods.”

Koretz described the city council’s third proposed initiative as an option that combines the revenue-raising provisions of one of the two ballot measures with “sensible controls on the numbers, locations and operations of dispensaries.” The council’s initiative offers the city tax advantages, maintains enough access for patients, protects communities and “represents a consensus among many different interests and stakeholders,” he said.

Koretz's initiative would include the tax increase on medical marijuana sales but also reduce the number of dispensaries by limiting those allowed to the pre-September 2007 marijuana collectives. The council member said he included the increased tax on marijuana in his proposal because it would be “a big carrot'' for voters and the revenue could also cover the cost for the city to enforce the new ordinance, according to City News Service.

“I know it’s been a long road on this issue, I know we all have opinions on what we did right and what we didn’t, but today I ask that we move forward together and give the voters a superior option and start protecting patients and communities at the same time,” Koretz said.

Council member Eric Garcetti bemoaned what he called the lack of “direction and leadership from the national and state level” regarding the city’s baffling and highly contested medical marijuana landscape.

Federal guidance on the issue is necessary “to finally reclassify medical marijuana as just that—a medicine—so that we can get past the hypocrisy and the work that we have to do here at the local level,” Garcetti said, adding: “At the state level, a state initiative passed and yet the state refuses to act and give us guidance, which is, in my opinion an abdication of their responsibilities.”

Garcetti said that while driving in the city Tuesday morning he saw 10 different pot clinics within a three or four block stretch. “That’s unacceptable, but it’s just as unacceptable for people not to have access to medicine,” he said. “And I also think it’s important for those dispensaries that have been good actors, that have been waiting for years, that have tried to play by the rules even as they have changed, who’ve done well for their employees and provided decent middle-class jobs and benefits.”

Before voting against Koretz’s measure, Council member Parks grilled representatives of the City Attorney’s office about the legality of the city’s proposed medical marijuana ordinance.

“Does it exceed the authority of the current state medical marijuana legislation?” Parks asked, referring to Koretz’s initiative.

Harit Trivedi, an assistant city attorney, replied that the ordinance does not exceed current state legislation on marijuana, which, he stressed, is itself hampered by numerous, contradictory court of appeals opinions. The state Supreme Court is expected on Feb. 5 to take up a “fairly significant case for oral argument that may provide guidance in this area,” he said.

Asked if any of the ordinances designed to go on the May ballot are preempted by state or federal law on the sale of marijuana, Steven Blau from the City Attorney’s office replied that although there are conflicting opinions on the issue, the city council’s initiative does not conflict with state or federal law. The only catch is that marijuana is an illegal drug under federal law and that “hopefully the California Supreme Court will give guidance on that issue,” he said.

Blau said that his office has done its best to “navigate the conflicting court of appeals opinions and to the best of our abilities have drafted something that we think will hold up.” The city’s proposed ordinance, he added, is similar to state law in the sense that it offers immunities from penalties.

“The only thing we have in state law are immunities” from enforcement, Blau said, adding: “Again, we’ve done our best to draft something that doesn’t conflict with federal law in terms of immunities. We’ve drafted [the ordinance] in terms of immunities, not in terms of permits or vested rights."

Asked by Parks whether any of the initatives can be lawfully implemented if approved by voters in May, Blau replied, after some hesitation, that he believes so. “The implementation would be in terms of which medical marijuana businesses would be immune from prosecution,” he said.

Asked if the city can legally tax the sale of contraband, Blau referred instead to a lawsuit pending by several plaintiffs who own medical marijuana businesses and who have challenged the city’s Measure “M,” which is aimed at taxing pot stores.

“I don’t know the answer to that,” Blau told Parks. “That’s an unanswered question. But the ordinance as it’s written provides for a severance of those provisions, should those provisions ultimately be held unconstitutional.”

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