Four years, six drafts and nearly 1,000 stores later, the City Council on Wednesday will consider a long-awaited, oft-debated medical marijuana ordinance whose provisions have shifted dramatically in recent days.
City Attorney Carmen Trutanich had sought to ban sales at dispensaries, but two city committees rejected the idea and suggested that cash could exchange hands as means for reimbursement but must comply with state law.
“The council is free to ignore our advice,” said David Berger, a special assistant to Trutanich whose office has revised the ordinance six times. “We respect that they are the policymakers. If they decide on something different that’s their prerogative.”
The dispute over what is permissible under state law has led to a two-year delay on an ordinance vote while a proliferation of pot shops—officials estimate as many as 600 over the past eight months alone—have opened across Los Angeles.
Authorities believe it has led to widespread abuse of a 1996 state ballot measure allowing sick people with referrals from doctors and an identification card to smoke marijuana. State law was amended in 2003 to allow collectives to provide pot grown by members but must be not-for-profit.
In response to the possible passage of the ordinance, Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley reiterated a pledge to target pot clinics that profit and sell to people who don’t qualify for medical marijuana.
Cooley said he believes state law authorizes the possession, use and cultivation of marijuana for medicinal purposes, but not the sale of the drug. Dispensary owners have argued they sell marijuana to their customers as a way to cover their costs.
“Any proposed ordinance allowing for the sales of marijuana is in direct conflict” with state law, Cooley said in a statement.
While other California cities such as San Francisco, Oakland and West Hollywood have been able to regulate medical marijuana, Los Angeles has fumbled to adopt guidelines.
In 2007, city officials approved a moratorium prohibiting new medical marijuana dispensaries. More than 180 clinics qualified to remain open, but many others took advantage of a loophole known as a “hardship exemption” that allowed them to open while awaiting city approval.
There are now as many as 1,000 marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles alone, far more than any other city in the nation and more than the number of Starbucks and public schools in the city. There were a mere four pot outlets in 2005 when city officials first discussed a local medical marijuana law.
Fourteen states, including California, permit medical marijuana. Pot, however, remains illegal under federal law.
Last month, a judge temporarily barred city officials from enforcing the moratorium, saying the City Council failed to follow state law when it extended an initial ban.
“To some extent, they have put themselves in this situation by failing to act sooner,” said Alex Kreit, an assistant professor and director of the Center for Law and Social Justice at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego. Kreit sits on a medical marijuana task force for the city of San Diego.
Medical marijuana advocates said they simply want clear regulations they can follow and Trutanich has misinterpreted state law in attempting to ban sales.
“The reason we have these problems is because the council failed to act in a timely manner,” said Dege Coutee, who runs the Patient Advocacy Network. “There was a void that needed to be filled and people went in and filled it.”
If the ordinance passes, the dispensaries would have to close until they comply with the new local law, Berger said. City officials would seek an injunction against those who don’t. Berger added he expects council members to discuss possibly capping the number of dispensaries allowed within city limits.
Daniel Sosa, who runs two dispensaries that opened before the city’s moratorium was enacted, said he’s unsure what will happen to his business given the dueling messages from the council and Cooley.
“It’s still very muddled,” Sosa said. “I can’t see how they are going to shut down the number of dispensaries out there.”
Caught in the middle are residents, some of whom support medical marijuana dispensaries but are concerned the clinics have contributed to blight in their neighborhoods.
David DeLaTorre, who lives near Dodger Stadium, said he believes council members have let the problem go unchecked and they should come up with solutions soon.
“Set up a district where these businesses can operate,” said DeLaTorre, 39, a father of two. “If we want dispensaries to operate, let’s change the U.S. Constitution. I’m not against it, under the right handling.”
– Article from the Associated Press.