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L.A. City Council finally passes medical marijuana ordinance

The Los Angeles City Council, without debate, gave final approval Tuesday to a medical marijuana ordinance that will impose some of the toughest rules in the state but was assailed by advocates who said the law will drastically restrict access to the drug.

The measure, which was finally passed more than 4 1/2 years after the council started to discuss the issue, will do little to calm the contentious debate over how Los Angeles should restrain a dispensary boom that has seen hundreds of pot stores cluster on the city’s major boulevards.

At least two organizations representing dispensaries are deciding whether to sue the city; one of them is also weighing whether to collect signatures for a referendum. The city attorney, who says state law does not allow collectives to sell marijuana, continues to press a lawsuit against an Eagle Rock dispensary in a bid to get the courts to decide the issue. And the Los Angeles County district attorney is prosecuting dispensary operators.

The ordinance, which aims to erase the carnival-esque image of Los Angeles as the capital of a weed resurgence, will allow city officials to shut down hundreds of dispensaries. But it will also impose restrictions on where they can be located, limits that operators say will eliminate most sites outside of isolated industrial parks.

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“It’s a disaster for patients,” said James Shaw, director of the Union of Medical Marijuana Patients.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa plans to sign the ordinance because it reduces the number of dispensaries and keeps them 1,000 feet from schools and places of worship.

“This legislation isn’t perfect, but the mayor feels it is a step in the right direction, and it’s time to focus our attention on other pressing issues,” spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton said.

The 9-3 vote was the second on the ordinance, which fell short last week of the unanimous tally needed to pass a law on the first vote. Bernard C. Parks, Jan Perry and Bill Rosendahl voted against it both times.

After the vote, council members expressed relief that an ordinance would be in place soon, even if it draws legal challenges.

“I knew we’d get here eventually; I just didn’t think it would take so long,” said Councilman Dennis Zine, who raised the issue in May 2005 when there were just four storefront dispensaries. “We’re doing an ordinance that we believe is lawful and that we believe can withstand lawsuits. They’ve threatened lawsuits for many, many years, so whatever we did in an ordinance we were going to be sued.”

Councilman Ed Reyes, who led the effort to draft the ordinance, acknowledged it may need changes. “We tried to interpret the state law for the way it was written,” he said.

The law will not take effect until the City Council approves the fees that dispensaries will have to pay to cover the cost of registration, a process that could take at least another 30 days, according to city officials.

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The ordinance caps the number of dispensaries at 70, but makes an exception for those that registered with the city clerk in 2007 and remain in their original locations or moved just once after their landlords were threatened with federal prosecution. City officials believe there are about 150 such dispensaries.

Among other restrictions aimed at ending L.A.'s late-night pot scene, dispensaries will be required to close by 8 p.m., marijuana use will not be allowed at the stores, and patients will be restricted to one collective. The 17-page ordinance also imposes controls aimed at preventing collectives from making profits, which are illegal under state law.

Neighborhood activists, who have been vastly outnumbered at every City Council meeting, urged the lawmakers to act quickly to enforce the ordinance. Lisa Sarkin, with the Studio City Neighborhood Council, noted that there were 13 dispensaries in the area. “I can’t imagine how this could be necessary,” she said.

Residents have complained about the over-concentration and have worried about crime. As if to underscore that concern, the Los Angeles Police Department sought the public’s help Tuesday to apprehend a suspect who robbed and shot an employee Jan. 8 at a dispensary on Reseda Boulevard in Northridge.

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Hundreds of dispensaries opened in L.A. as the council slowly debated its proposed ordinance and failed to enforce a moratorium on dispensaries. City officials believe upward of 500 will be required to close.

Once the ordinance takes effect, the city attorney’s office will send a series of letters to landlords and operators, a process that Special Assistant City Atty. Jane Usher estimated would take about 45 days. Based on past experience, the office expects at least a third to shut down. The city would take the others to court.

“The smoke should clear six months from the effective date of the ordinance,” she said.

Most of the allowed dispensaries will have to move within six months to comply with the land-use restrictions. But operators are panicked because the ordinance appears to give them just weeks to tell the city where they are moving.

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The ordinance requires dispensaries to be at least 1,000 feet from other dispensaries and sites with so-called sensitive uses, such as schools, parks and libraries. In a last-minute addition, the City Council also restricted them from operating adjacent to or across a street or alley from residential properties. This requirement, operators said, eliminates most commercial streets, such as Melrose Avenue and Pico and Ventura boulevards, where alleys separate stores from homes.

Operators who have started to scour the rental market say there are few locations that will work and that landlords, aware such properties are scarce, are demanding exorbitant rents.

Barry Kramer, who runs California Patients Alliance, a registered dispensary on Melrose Avenue in the Beverly Grove neighborhood, said he has looked at six locations.

“We’re scrambling right now,” he said. “No, we have not found anything.”

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Kramer said he had anticipated the 1,000-foot restrictions and was careful to look for space far from sensitive uses before he opened 2 1/2 years ago. It took him eight months to find one. But the alley restriction will force him to move from a location where he says he has operated discreetly with no complaints from neighbors.

“The frustration is that we’ve tried to work so hard, 2 1/2 years of working with everything that they’ve brought down,” he said. “Now, all those good operators are going to be cast aside.”

Kramer belongs to an organization representing medical marijuana collectives that are registered with the city. The group, which has tried for years to work with the council, is now looking to hire a well-connected lobbyist to press for changes and a lawyer to investigate whether to file a lawsuit.

The hundreds of dispensary operators who are not registered or who opened in the last several years are also exploring whether to sue the city or collect the 27,425 valid signatures needed to force a referendum.

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“We are prepared to go forward and stop this ordinance,” said Dan Lutz, who runs the Green Oasis dispensary on the Westside and has organized a group of operators. “I regret that we have to go this route.”

john.hoeffel@latimes.com


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