The Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to ban medical marijuana storefronts, citing a shifting and uncertain legal landscape that has made it nearly impossible for the city to control the number of pot shops, estimated to be as many as 1,000.
The plan championed by City Council members José Huizar, Mitchell Englander, Bernard Parks and Jan Perry will allow primary caregivers and patients to grow and transport marijuana. Two or three patients would be able to collectively grow and share cannabis in homes or apartments, but not storefronts.
The measure includes exemptions for hospices and licensed clinics, as well as facilities and home health agencies where patients get “medical care or supportive services.''
The ban has the backing of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the City Attorney's Office, police Chief Charlie Beck and District Attorney Steve Cooley.
Initially, the council voted 13-1, with Council member Paul Koretz dissenting. But Koretz, who backed an opposing plan, changed his vote after the Council agreed to advance his plan on a parallel track. If the vote had not been unanimous, the council would have been required to cast a second vote on the issue next week.
The plan by Koretz and Council President Herb Wesson, with strong backing from organized labor, could eventually allow 182 dispensaries that existed prior to 2007—when the Council placed a moratorium on new dispensaries—to operate under tightened regulations and would close all other dispensaries.
Because the Council agreed to advance the Koretz-Wesson proposal, the City Attorney's Office will draft an ordinance that will require an environmental analysis and approval by the city Planning Commission before it comes to the Council. Officials said the plan could be back to the Council in three months.
In the meantime, the ban approved Tuesday will take effect 30 days after it is signed by the mayor. Once the ordinance is in force, the city will send out a letter to 762 dispensaries registered under Measure M (the 2011 ballot measure approved by 59 percent of state voters) to pay taxes to the city. The dispensaries will be notified of the new law and asked to comply with it. The city will then ask a judge for closure orders, starting with the “bad actors''—the dispensaries that have generated the largest volumes of complaints from residents.
The vote, which came a little less than two hours after Council members went into closed session to consider whether or not to ban marijuana facilities, prompted angry, even abusive, protests from medical marijuana supporters who packed the Council chambers.
Medical cannabis activists shouted in opposition after the ban, sending about a dozen LAPD officers into the council chamber to escort opponents out.
Opponents of the ban said it will prove tragic for patients with terminal illnesses who cannot grow marijuana on their own because it is costly and requires extensive training.
“Forcing us to [grow our own] does not magically grant us the talent, skill and ability to grow marijuana, just as many of us would not be able to grow our own food if we did not have the option of a grocery store tomorrow,'' Raj Jawa told the Council.
Another activist told the Council a low-end growing operation would cost at minimum $5,300.
“This is an outrage that the city council would think a reasonable solution to the distribution of medical marijuana would be to simply outlaw it altogether,” said Don Duncan, California Director with Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group. "The tens of thousands of patients harmed by this vote will not take it sitting down. We will campaign forcefully to overturn this poor decision by the council.''
Residents of Studio City, Eagle Rock, Boyle Heights and elsewhere expressed support for the ordinance, pointing to a proliferation of dispensaries in recent years that they claim has eroded quality of life, hurt local businesses and led to multiple dispensaries on the same block in some cases.
Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council President Michael Larsen told the council that there are 15 medical marijuana dispensaries within a 1.2-mile radius in Eagle Rock.
"To those who support medical marijuana [storefronts], I would say, Guess who is ensuring that the facilities are clean and safe for patients who arrive with cash and leave with a valuable street drug? Who is ensuring that the [storefront] operators are not cartel-related?"
California voters in 1996 approved Proposition 215, which legalized medical marijuana with 55.6 percent of the vote, but regulating outlets has proved troublesome, prompting some cities to effectively zone them out of existence or ban them outright.
A state appellate court recently ruled that municipalities cannot completely ban medical marijuana outlets without providing an alternative distribution method. The same court also ruled that a ban on storefront dispensaries, while providing for collectives of three or fewer, would not violate state law.
The ban will cost the city tax revenue. The 762 registered dispensaries paid about $2 million in gross receipts taxes during the most recent tax period—$50 for each $1,000 in gross receipts, according to a finance specialist for the City Administrative Office.
After the vote, Huizar said the ban on dispensaries still provides safe access to marijuana for patients who need it, and it will also put the city on solid legal footing and alleviate quality of life issues that constituents complain about.
“Relief is coming in the form of having a more focused and intense crackdown on these dispensaries that cause problems in our neighborhoods,'' Huizar said.
Koretz said banning dispensaries would not provide safe access and would drive patients to the black market for marijuana.
“I think we're living in a dream world if we think we're providing access to very many people,” Koretz said. “Virtually no one has the ability to grow marijuana. We are shutting down access to patients that desperately need it over the next few months.”
Koretz told the council that over the years he has known hundreds of people who have died of AIDS. "I have friends who are still alive today because of medical marijuana—and that's why this [issue] is so important to me," he said to loud applause from the audience.
Huizar called Koretz's motion false hope until the Supreme Court rules on whether and how cities can regulate dispensaries.
Meanwhile, Council member Ed Reyes raised concerns about the resources it would require to shut down the dispensaries. He asked the LAPD, the City Attorney's Office and other city officials to report back with a plan for closing dispensaries.
David Paul Steiner, an attorney for a group of pre-2007 collectives, would not say whether his clients planned to ask a judge to block the ordinance, but said, “I suspect there will be a number of dispensaries that will take further legal action, because we think this particular ordinance has all sorts of problems.''
The council's action came on the first day it was back in session following a two-week recess. Council members heard public comments and discussed the issue amongst themselves for more than 90 minutes before moving behind closed doors for further deliberations—a step necessary to keep council members and their advisers from saying anything in public that might be used against them in a string of medical marijuana-related lawsuits that the city has been battling for the past several years.
LAPD Chief Supports Ban
The discussions opened a little after 11 a.m., with Reyes referencing a letter that Chief Beck submitted to the council. In the letter, Beck outlined public safety risks that "a steady proliferation" of medical marijuana clinics pose. Los Angeles, Beck wrote, has earned “the unfortunate title of storefront capital of the United States."
The city has an estimated 800 to 1,000 dispensaries, and "the overwhelming majority are for-profit businesses engaged in the sale of recreational marijuana to healthy young adults," Beck wrote in the five-paragraph letter. Not only are such dispensaries unauthorized under state and federal law, but efforts to regulate them have been hampered by "a lack of guidance from California courts," said Beck, adding: "Allowing even a limited number of dispensaries to legally remain open will only add to the confusion."
Since the issue was brought before the council, Koretz pointed out, one appellate court has ruled that municipalities cannot ban medical marijuana facilities, while another appellate court has upheld the City's medical marijuana ordinance, (which has been challenged by dispensary owners and is considered unenforceable by the LAPD.)
"So I think we are in a good position to do the right thing,” said Koretz, adding: “Now, I'm not happy about the hundreds of new dispensaries that have been added [in recent years]—the ones that I believe are the real problem. But I don't want us to completely close off access to people who desperately need medical marijuana. We can't have that happen.”
Flawed State Law: Huizar
After the council’s vote in favor of his plan, Huizar acknowledged that “it’s very difficult for three or less people to grow their own [marijuana].” But that, he added, is the state law that must be complied with, even though it’s a “terrible state law that needs to be fixed.”
As he has argued before, Huizar said that all attempts to deal with the proliferation of marijuana storefronts must recognize that the issue is currently before the state Supreme Court, whose verdict is expected in a year or two.
“At the minimum, we should be honest with the public as to how we’re doing this,” he said of the city’s regulation efforts.
“People are upset with us as if we created this,” Rick Coca, Huizar’s communications director, told Patch after the vote. “But it’s a badly written state law with loopholes in it, and we’re doing the best we can by the majority of the people in Los Angeles who are not medical marijuana users.”