L.A. mayoral candidates sound off on pot dispensaries

Los Angeles mayoral candidates Jan Perry, left, Kevin James, Wendy Greuel and Eric Garcetti debate in Hollywood Sept. 19.
(Los Angeles Times)

As Los Angeles voters face the possibility of as many as three medical marijuana initiatives on the May ballot, several mayoral candidates have begun to outline their own plans to deal with the proliferation of pot dispensaries — an issue that has ensnared the City Council in countless legal tangles.

At a mayoral forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters last week, four of the five leading candidates argued for paring back the hundreds of pot dispensaries around the city. But Councilman Eric Garcetti said his first goal would be to persuade the federal government to reclassify marijuana as a medicine: “I will advocate that as mayor,” he said.


Garcetti, who presided over many of the battles on the issue as council president from 2006 to 2012, said he would also urge state lawmakers to set regulations governing the distribution of medical marijuana.

“The courts say wildly different things because there has not been clear guidance from the state or federal level,” he said. At the city level, Garcetti said, he would try to “keep access” while limiting the number of dispensaries. “You charge a fee so you have an enforcement mechanism, and where possible collect taxes” — steps that, he said, would free up law enforcement officers to focus on more serious crime.

City Controller Wendy Greuel called for “compassion” but said her emphasis would be on tightening regulations on the locations of pot shops in the city.

“I think when people voted in the state of California to allow medical marijuana, they thought they would go to their local CVS pharmacy and get it. They didn’t think about the impact it would have on neighborhoods,” said Greuel, who is targeting many of the more conservative San Fernando Valley voters. “The bottom line is we have a right to regulate where marijuana clinics are in the city of Los Angeles…. The public is demanding that the government actually do their job.”

After the forum, aides to Greuel told The Times she also would support classifying marijuana as a medicine at the federal level.

The city has struggled for years to regulate the placement of pot shops. A loophole in the city’s 2007 moratorium allowed hundreds of additional shops to open. The council’s efforts to limit the proliferation led to more than 100 lawsuits against the city. In response to complaints from neighborhood activists, the council enacted a ban on storefront marijuana sales last July. But it retreated in October, repealing the ban after a well-organized coalition of marijuana activists mounted an effort to overturn it at the ballot box.

Kevin James, a former federal prosecutor and the sole Republican among the major contenders, said the confusion and legal wrangling illustrated the dysfunction of the council.

“More pot clinics than Starbucks? Unbelievable,” James said at Thursday night’s forum. “Only this City Council could put a moratorium on 180 or so pot clinics — and it skyrockets to over 1,000.”

The five mayoral candidates were pressed to say how many dispensaries should be allowed across the city. James said he favored about 10 in each of the 15 council districts. Garcetti said the original number of dispensaries — approximately 100 — was “about right.”

Greuel and Councilwoman Jan Perry said they were hesitant to name an exact number, with Perry adding that she would take her policy cues from the voters in May.

Candidate Emanuel Pleitez, a technology executive who read from notes throughout the forum, argued that “politicians shouldn’t be in the business of setting numbers” and should “let the market decide.”

Last week the City Council advanced a measure for the May ballot that would permit only the dispensaries that opened before the moratorium to operate; the measure would also raise taxes on marijuana sales. Garcetti backed the request by Councilman Paul Koretz and Council President Herb Wesson asking the city attorney to draw up language for a ballot measure. Perry was absent for the vote.

Two additional — and competing — medical marijuana initiatives have qualified for the May ballot.

One, which is largely backed by dispensaries that opened after the moratorium, would allow many pot shops to remain open, but it would set new requirements for their operations — such as limited hours and maintaining a certain distance from schools. It would raise taxes on medical marijuana by 20% to pay for city enforcement.

The other was created by a coalition of medical marijuana advocates and the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which began organizing dispensary workers last year. Like the City Council-sponsored proposal, it would allow only pot dispensaries that opened before 2007 to operate. Koretz and Wesson have criticized the measure for not mandating that the shops be located farther away from schools, churches and parks.

Some advocates for the union-backed measure now say they probably will support the council’s proposal because it too would allow older dispensaries to remain open and has a better chance of passing.