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Medical marijuana advocates sue Los Angeles

Medical marijuana advocates upped the ante in the legal battle over Los Angeles’ pot dispensaries by suing the city Tuesday, saying the recently adopted ordinance is so restrictive it will cause even law-abiding businesses to shut down.

Americans for Safe Access, the nation’s main medical marijuana advocacy nonprofit group, filed the lawsuit along with the Venice Beach Care Center and Pure Life Alternative Wellness Center, two dispensaries that have operated in Los Angeles since 2006 -- before the city’s moratorium on dispensaries took effect.

The 11-page suit filed in L.A. County Superior Court says the sweeping marijuana ordinance passed by the City Council in January and signed into law by the mayor Feb. 3 “severely restricts access to medical marijuana by effectively forcing plaintiffs, as well as the vast majority of collectives in the city, to close their doors.”

The law won’t take effect until the council approves registration fees that dispensaries must pay. City officials are still working to determine what the fees will be.

The suit alleges that the ordinance violates state law, and the plaintiffs seek a court injunction and restraining order to stop it from being enforced. Dispensary operators object to the “onerous restrictions” of the law, such as a rule giving them only seven days after the ordinance takes effect to relocate to 1,000 feet away from schools, parks and places of worship but does not provide maps to show where they can operate.

“We want to work with the city to comply with its regulations, but such unreasonable requirements make compliance impossible,” Yamileth Bolanos, the head of a group of collectives and operator of the PureLife Alternative Wellness Center, said in a statement.

An official in the city attorney’s office said that he had not reviewed the lawsuit and could not comment on specifics but that its filing could be premature because the law hasn’t taken effect.

“We’ll be prepared to respond in the court,” said William W. Carter, the city attorney’s chief deputy. “Regardless of this lawsuit, the city attorney’s office will continue to enforce existing local and state law. This lawsuit does not affect our long-standing and ongoing enforcement efforts.”

Councilman Ed Reyes, who helped shepherd the ordinance through years of City Council wrangling, said the dispensaries have had plenty of warning about the new law’s restrictions. “Why not start moving now? Why wait until the last minute to get their store in order?” he said. “We need to take control of the city and to start pushing back on this tidal wave that has come at us.”

Hundreds of dispensaries have opened across the city, but the ordinance would dramatically reduce the number. When the city imposed a moratorium on new dispensaries in 2007, existing facilities could register to keep operating. Only those, if they are still open, would be allowed to operate under the ordinance.

The city attorney’s office recently won a court injunction requiring Hemp Factor V in Eagle Rock to stop selling marijuana. After that the office filed three more lawsuits seeking similar injunctions against Organica in the Venice area and two Holistic Caregivers stores in South Los Angeles.

City Atty. Carmen Trutanich has said state law authorizes collectives only to grow marijuana and recover their actual costs, not to sell it.

Voters passed the state’s medical marijuana initiative in 1996, and the Legislature adopted a law to expand access in 2003, but the courts still have not ruled directly on whether collectives can sell marijuana to their members.

Americans for Safe Access threatened to sue the city last week if it did not drop those lawsuits, calling them part of a crackdown that goes beyond the scope of the new ordinance.

tony.barboza@latimes.com


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