In what could be a turning point in the city's seemingly unending battle to regulate the distribution of medical marijuana, the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to ban all pot dispensaries, while also opening the door to possibly let some remain.
Under the ban, all of the 762 dispensaries registered in the city will be sent letters ordering them to shut down immediately. Those that don't comply may face legal action from the city.
Medical marijuana activists erupted in jeers after the decision, and police officers were called into the council chambers to quell them. Some activists threatened to sue. Others vowed to draft a ballot initiative to overturn the ban.
"We're not going to make this easy for the city of Los Angeles," said Don Duncan, California director of Americans for Safe Access.
The new ordinance will allow patients and their caregivers to grow and share marijuana in groups of three people or fewer. But activists complain that few patients have the time or skills for that, with one dispensary owner saying it costs at least $5,000 to grow the plant at home.
Councilman Jose Huizar said the ban, which received a last-minute show of support from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and police Chief Charlie Beck, will help bring peace to neighborhoods that he says have been tormented by problem dispensaries.
"Relief is on its way," he said, noting that the ban would allow the city to close shops without having to prove that they are violating nuisance or land-use laws, as is the case now.
But the issue was clouded when the council also voted to instruct city staff to draw up a separate ordinance that would allow dozens of pot shops to remain open. Officials said that proposal, which would grant immunity to shops that existed before a 2007 moratorium on new dispensaries, could be back to the council for consideration in three months.
Huizar voted against that motion, which he said might give the public "false hope" that the ban would not be enforced.
But Councilman Dennis Zine, who voted for both the ban and the plan to allow some dispensaries to stay open, suggested that police might not enforce the ban against the city's original pot shops while the new ordinance is being drawn up.
"The officers will be given that information and we will concentrate on the other locations initially," Zine said.
However, Councilman Paul Koretz, who proposed the ordinance to allow some shops to stay open, called Tuesday's prohibition "a ban until otherwise noted."
How cities should regulate distribution of pot has been a gray area since California voters passed a 1996 initiative legalizing medical marijuana even though any sale of marijuana remains illegal under federal law. Officials are looking to an upcoming ruling by the state Supreme Court for clarity on whether cities can regulate and ban dispensaries, but that may not come for another year.
Council members said that in the meantime, something had to be done to reduce the number of dispensaries, which outnumber Starbucks coffee shops in Los Angeles two to one, according to Councilman Paul Krekorian.
Beck, who appeared before the council, said dispensaries can be hot spots for crime, citing burglaries, armed robberies and killings. In a letter to lawmakers, he said most pot shops are "for-profit businesses engaged in the sale of recreational marijuana to healthy young adults."
But those who support dispensaries say the ban will simply drive distribution of marijuana underground.
That's what Steven Lubell, an attorney who represents several of the city's original dispensaries, predicted. "Is it going to go away? No," said. "It's going to go to a darker side."