La Puente, South El Monte take first steps to regulating medical marijuana

James Wagner, San Gabriel Valley Tribune

LA PUENTE -- The City Council voted 5-0 Tuesday night to allow six medical marijuana dispensaries to open their doors. The ordinance will go into effect in January after a second reading. The first such shop opened its doors two weeks ago near the intersection of Glendora Avenue and Hacienda Boulevard.

"I think it's a necessary step that the council must take at this point," said Mayor Louie Lujan of the city's regulations.

Officials with the La Puente Medical Cannabis Center declined to comment.

City officials will still have to deal with Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, who said last month he would prosecute medical marijuana shops - even those protected by city ordinances.

"If they sell it, it's illegal," Cooley's spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons said Wednesday.

Despite Cooley's contention that over-the-counter sales of marijuana will be prosecuted, sheriff's officials said the La Puente proposal presents few, if any, demands on their service.

"The allowing of these facilities is not necessarily a challenge," sheriff's Sgt. Hugo Macias said. "It is legal. We still patrol the streets the same. It's like having any license."

Several other cities in California have struggled in recent weeks to establish limits on dispensaries in the wake of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's October announcement that suppliers wouldn't be targeted for federal prosecution in states that allowed medical use of the drug.

Also on Tuesday, South El Monte voted on a law that would allow only one dispensary.

Over the past three months, five business licenses for medical marijuana dispensaries have been approved in La Puente and one application is pending - the reason why the city approved the dispensary cap at six.

Two shops are scheduled to open soon.

The city's ordinance would allow the dispensaries to be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and a security guard - who can be armed - must patrol a two-block radius around the shop.

La Puente formerly had a dispensary moratorium in place, but the law lapsed without extension in 2008. And a proposal last year for an outright ban failed.

"I voted for this because this is actually something we need to do, but I think it's late," said Councilman Dan Holloway, who was in favor of a previous attempt to ban medical marijuana dispensaries. "I would have preferred we had banned it in 2008."

Currently, dispensaries can only be built in commercial zoned areas.

Residents have taken issue with the city's only dispensary being only blocks from Del Valle Elementary School and Sierra Vista Middle School.

"Why can't they have one or two of these medical marijuana shops in an industrial area, not where the kids are going to be walking to school?" said Lois Maben, 77-year old La Puente resident. "That's a dangerous precedent."

It's not uncommon for a city to start regulating dispensaries after one opens in town, said Kris Hermes, a spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, an Oakland-based medical-marijuana advocacy group.

Sometimes it's in response to complaints, but city officials also are looking to have control over how businesses operate, he said.

"It can also be nervousness on the part of city government that this activity is going on unregulated and they may feel like they want to got take a hand in overseeing it," he said.

South El Monte's law, passed unanimously, prohibits marijuana dispensaries within 1,000 feet of a park, school, religious institution or home. It requires a security guard be on site to ensure people aren't smoking marijuana near the dispensary and prohibits it from selling tobacco, pipes or other paraphernalia.

The law - an emergency ordinance - takes effect immediately.

Lujan said he hopes La Puente can toe the line between regulating marijuana and allowing the dispensaries for medical use given state law.

A political action committee led by several prominent medical-marijuana advocates, including Lujan's brother Philip Lujan, paid $4,025 in mailers and money to council members Holloway, Lujan and Nadia Mendoza, campaign finance records show.

At the time, they said their votes on marijuana issues were not influenced by the committee, which was named "Coalition for a Safe and Clean Environment."

"It's up to the business to responsibly operate their business," Lujan said this week. "In this whole debate, we can't forget those who use this properly and use it as their last resort."

Staff writer Rebecca Kimitch contributed to this story.