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L.A. council to debate whether to outlaw medical pot stores

With more medical marijuana dispensaries opening in Los Angeles and recent court decisions stirring new confusion, the City Council plans to debate whether to outlaw the stores.

A ban would be a major about-face for the council, which has struggled to find a way to allow dispensaries, but under tight control. And it would be a serious setback for the medical marijuana movement if the state’s largest city — and one of its most progressive — joins the scores of more conservative cities and counties that have prohibited storefront sales.

On Wednesday, Councilman Jose Huizar called on his colleagues to repeal the city’s ordinance and to ban stores, delivery services and commercial cultivation until the state Supreme Court resolves the legal uncertainties. His motion is the second to propose an end to the city’s troubled attempts to regulate marijuana. Council members Bernard C. Parks and Jan Perry introduced one last month.

“This wasn’t an easy decision, but I think if we do nothing at this moment and stick our heads in the sand we would be irresponsible,” said Huizar, whose district includes Eagle Rock, which has 15 dispensaries in a 1.2-mile radius, according to the neighborhood council. “We’re concerned, if we do nothing, we’re going to be in an even worse situation than before our ordinance.”

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Los Angeles has struggled for years to reduce the number of dispensaries, which opened by the hundreds when the city failed to enforce a moratorium. It’s unclear how many dispensaries there are now, but 372 medical marijuana businesses have filed to pay the city’s pot tax.

Since it began to consider the issue six and a half years ago, the council has never tilted toward prohibition. But frustration with another uptick in dispensaries could change that. Four council members support a ban, five oppose it and five are undecided, but open to the idea.

Council President Eric Garcetti said he would aim to have the council take the issue up next month.

“I think it’s important that we get some council movement on this,” said Garcetti, who has doubts about a ban but has not taken a position on it.

Los Angeles and other municipalities — even some friendly to medical marijuana — are now taking a look at bans because of several recent state appeals court rulings.

Last month, the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles ruled that Long Beach, which set up a lottery to choose which dispensaries to allow, violated federal law because the city was, in essence, authorizing the distribution of an illegal drug. The decision, which Long Beach has appealed to the state Supreme Court, called into doubt whether cities and counties can adopt any regulations for controlling dispensaries, even zoning rules setting distances from schools.

And this month, an appeals court in Riverside issued two decisions that were the clearest yet to find that state laws allowing medical marijuana use do not block bans on dispensaries.

Medical marijuana activists — many of whom have attended council meetings for years to cajole and berate the city into adopting a workable ordinance — turned out at Wednesday’s council session and were roiling with outrage.

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“Irresponsible, Mr. Huizar? Irresponsible to do nothing?” said an infuriated Yamileth Bolanos, the president of the Greater Los Angeles Collective Alliance. “For six years, this council has done nothing. We came and told you about the proliferation of the collectives in the city. This council did nothing. Irresponsible to do nothing? Yes, it was very irresponsible to do nothing. And today, calling for a ban is the most irresponsible thing you can do because you’re turning over the distribution of medical marijuana to the cartels and the gangs in the city.”

Although City Atty. Carmen Trutanich will not discuss what advice he has given the council, he and his top lawyers have made clear where they stand on how to interpret the court decisions. “I think it gives us the authority to prohibit but not to authorize,” he said. “We’re definitely going to have to step very cautiously. This is an area that is fraught with land mines, not only legal land mines but political land mines.”

Huizar’s motion, seconded by Councilman Mitch Englander, would repeal the current ordinance, which would choose 100 dispensaries in a lottery and restrict where they could locate. “As we stand now, we really have an unenforceable ordinance,” Huizar said. “We’re back where we started.”

A ban is opposed by council members Paul Koretz, Tom LaBonge, Bill Rosendahl, Dennis Zine and Herb Wesson, the next council president, who said the city must strike a balance. Koretz said he has friends with AIDS who would be dead without marijuana.

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“This is the easy way out,” he said. “When people’s lives are at stake, I don’t think we should take the easy way out.”

But other council members said they would weigh a temporary ban.

“I do think it affords us an opportunity to take a step back, take a clean look at it and reload, reboot, and try to come up with a policy that is going to work,” Councilman Paul Krekorian said.

Huizar’s move comes as concern over more dispensaries opening willy-nilly is again angering some city residents. Three neighborhood council leaders stood behind the councilman in a show of support when he announced his proposal at a morning news conference at City Hall.

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The East Hollywood Neighborhood Council voted unanimously Monday to back a ban.

“The only other option is chaos, which is what we have,” said Doug Haines, the chairman of the planning committee, who noted that new pot shops are opening in the area’s vacant commercial buildings. “They’re brazen. They don’t in any way try to hide what they are doing.”

Michael Larsen, the president of the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council, said the area once had 24 dispensaries, which dropped to 10 when the city’s ordinance took effect in June 2010, but five have opened since then.

“That’s unacceptable,” he said. “We don’t want 15 Starbucks. We don’t want 15 McDonald’s. And we certainly don’t want 15 illegal pot shops.”

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Larsen, who said he was not speaking for the neighborhood council, said a ban was “the only reasonable path” to end “this out-of-control farce” until the courts clear up the issue.

The South Robertson Neighborhoods Council decided to host a town hall on the issue after two dispensaries opened last month next to two others near a temple and an elementary school. “Having businesses that seem to be completely outside the jurisdiction of the city is maddening,” said Doug Fitzsimmons, the council’s president.

Fitzsimmons said he had heard from other upset neighborhood leaders.

“This is a widespread problem. It’s getting worse,” he said. “The current legislative and legal environment is just emboldening people to open businesses because, frankly, the city is overtaxed.”

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But, as a supporter of medical marijuana, Fitzsimmons was torn about banishing dispensaries, noting that some are run responsibly. “If this is the only legal option that the city has, I reluctantly support it, but it’s denying people, I think, the legitimate right to medicine.”

john.hoeffel@latimes.com


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