L.A. acts to cap medical marijuana dispensaries

The Los Angeles City Council took several key steps Tuesday toward completing an ordinance that would regulate the city's multiplying medical marijuana dispensaries, voting to sharply limit the number and location of stores.

The decisions, reached after hours of often heated debate, came more than 4 1/2 years after the council first looked at the issue. At that time, there were four known dispensaries in the city. Hundreds opened while the city failed to enforce a moratorium on dispensaries and pass an ordinance.

The council voted to allow 70 dispensaries. But it also decided to allow those dispensaries that had registered with the city and are still open in their original locations to continue to operate. The city attorney's office put the number at 137. The cap would take effect only if the number of dispensaries dropped to 70.

In a final bid to clamp down, the council also tightened the location restrictions, deciding that dispensaries will not be allowed within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, libraries, residences or sites with other so-called sensitive uses. Supporters of that restriction said it was critical to protect neighborhoods, but opponents and dispensary operators insisted that it would eliminate most locations in Los Angeles, where commercial strips are often next to houses.

The council plans to vote today on the overall measure.

The debate has seen the council try to find a balance among medical marijuana advocates who have demanded safe access to the drug, homeowners who have protested the rapid expansion of dispensaries into residential neighborhoods and prosecutors who have insisted that collectives cannot sell marijuana and must grow it on-site.

Councilman Jose Huizar, who spearheaded the push for the cap and other attempts to stiffen the proposed ordinance, said he believed the city needed to start with the most restrictive approach. "If we allow for permissiveness in this ordinance, people will take advantage of it," he said.

Most council members appeared to agree, including Ed Reyes, who oversaw the drawn-out drafting process and who had reduced the allowable distance from schools and other such sites to 500 feet. He reversed himself Tuesday.

"I really think we sent a strong message that we want to take our city back," said Reyes, who intervened several times as the debate strayed to urge his colleagues to finish the ordinance. "We have to clean up a real big mess now."

L.A. has almost no control over its medical marijuana dispensaries. An L.A. County Superior Court judge recently declared that the city's moratorium on new outlets, adopted in 2007, was illegally extended and could not be enforced. Dispensaries are still opening and have clustered in neighborhoods such as Eagle Rock, Hollywood and Woodland Hills, drawn by empty storefronts or by proximity to night life or cities that do not allow pot dispensaries.

Michael Larsen, public safety director for the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council and one of the most vigilant neighborhood activists, said he was pleased with the cap and the location restrictions: "We see the light at the end of the tunnel, but I don't expect any real change in the situation until late spring or summer, realistically."

The only other city among the state's 10 largest to impose a cap is Oakland, which has less than one-tenth the population of Los Angeles and allows four dispensaries. Those operations have become extremely successful, splitting about $20 million a year in sales. Berkeley, with a population of 107,000, allows three shops; Palm Springs, population 47,600, two; West Hollywood, population 37,000, four; and Sebastopol, population 7,700, two.

Jane Usher, a special assistant city attorney, told the council that she did not believe a lawsuit challenging a cap would be successful. "If you can have an outright ban," she said, "then assuredly you can have a cap."

Council members wrestled with whether to cap the number at 70, as Huizar proposed, or 186, as Councilman Dennis Zine suggested. Zine and several other council members argued that the city needed to respect the dispensaries that had followed the city's requirements and registered to operate under the moratorium.

Zine spoke strenuously against the proposed 70 limit. "I don't think that is fair to those that opened up legally," he said. "I think that we should hold true to those that followed the rule."

But Huizar noted that the 186 did nothing more than fill out paperwork. "There's good ones, there's bad ones," he said, adding that city officials had not vetted them.

He also maintained that 70 was all that the budget-strapped city could oversee. "We don't have sufficient staff right now," he said.

Los Angeles Police Cmdr. Pat Gannon said the LAPD would probably set up a separate inspection and audit unit to oversee dispensaries. He estimated that a 14-employee team would be needed to watch 70 dispensaries and would cost about $1.3 million to operate. He said the staff could be drawn from the narcotics unit, but added, "They would not be working on criminal narcotics investigations that they would normally be working on."

Under the proposed ordinance, those dispensaries allowed to remain in business would have six months to comply with the new restrictions. Many would probably have to relocate. City officials will draw up a plan that would distribute them among the city's 35 community plan areas by population to prevent over-concentration.

Yamileth Bolanos, a dispensary owner and president of the Greater Los Angeles Collectives Alliance, was relieved. "We complied with everything they asked us to at that time, so it's only fair. It's a good place to start," she said.

Dispensaries that opened after the moratorium will have to shut down. City officials are still working out how they will force those operators to close. Some have threatened to sue if the council gives preferential treatment to registered dispensaries.

Councilman Richard Alarcon, frustrated to learn that the council had reduced the setback requirement from 1,000 to 500 feet, spearheaded the effort to restore the greater distance.

"To think that we're going to have these places 500 feet from schools, that to me is ridiculous," he said.

But Councilman Paul Koretz argued that the cap and distance restrictions in the ordinance would be a de facto ban. "If you did all of this, you might as well wipe out the whole system and have to start over again," he said.

The council included residences in the list of sensitive uses on Tuesday, an addition that many dispensary operators insist would make it impossible to find a suitable location. "They essentially closed down every dispensary in Los Angeles," Bolanos said.

City planning officials said they were unable to say exactly what the impact would be. The department has not completed citywide maps that would show the exact properties available under 500-foot and 1,000-foot setbacks.

The council also tangled over whether to restrict the amount of dried marijuana and plants that dispensaries can have on hand and require dispensaries to cultivate marijuana on-site.

Huizar argued that on-site cultivation was necessary to ensure that dispensaries were not buying from the black market, but Koretz wondered whether the requirement would lead to "stadium-size dispensaries."

The council decided against specific restrictions and chose simply to require that dispensaries follow state law. That solution echoed the approach the council took earlier on the issue of whether dispensaries can sell marijuana. Faced with the adamant contention of the city attorney's office that sales were illegal, the council adopted vague language that allows cash contributions as long as they comply with state law.

"It allows for the courts to decide that," said council President Eric Garcetti, who had worked out the "elegant" language that dispensary owners believe allows sales and the city attorney's office believes ban them.

Huizar also tried to persuade the council to collect detailed information on medical marijuana use, including the age, gender, city of residence, medical condition and recommending physician's name for every patient. He said that information would allow the council to learn the real demand.

Koretz and Councilwoman Janice Hahn raised objections, questioning why the information was necessary. Huizar agreed instead to ask city officials to report back on what kind of information could be collected.

john.hoeffel@latimes.com

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