Los Angeles lawmakers backed a host of new regulations for the marijuana industry Wednesday, paving the way for the hotly anticipated business of recreational pot.
The unanimous vote was a landmark step for the biggest city in California as the state prepares to start issuing permits to grow, sell, test and distribute recreational marijuana. Despite a slew of concerns about the exact details of the plan, the City Council voted 12 to 0 for the regulations, which now go to the mayor for his approval.
The elaborate rules reflect a tug of war at City Hall over the hopes and fears for the soon-to-be-legalized industry. They have been a prime focus of Council President Herb Wesson, who said Wednesday that cities across the country will be looking to Los Angeles as an example.
"We are L.A. We are leaders. We take on the tough issues," Wesson said. Before the vote, he urged lawmakers, "Let's make history."
The City Council has been eager to pull in new revenue from the marijuana business, which is expected to generate more than $50 million in tax revenue for the city next year. California will start licensing the recreational pot industry in January, aiming to bring an illicit market out of the shadows.
The council also has vowed to make sure that disadvantaged communities that were hit hardest by the war on drugs can now cash in, a quest near and dear to political progressives. At the Wednesday meeting, Councilman Curren Price lamented that the criminalization of cannabis "unfairly targeted communities of color like the one I represent."
"I'm ready to level the playing field so that everyone has a fair shot at reaping the rewards of this booming industry," Price said. "Because we shouldn't just be rolling out the red carpet to those individuals with deep pockets or powerful corporations."
Under its "social equity" program, the city will give priority processing and other assistance to marijuana business applicants who are poor and were previously convicted of some marijuana crimes — or who have lived in areas that were heavily affected by cannabis arrests.
Before the vote, Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson declared that "we will shut down one of the major fronts of the war on drugs."
While other cities have shied away from marijuana, "this is a city that is ready to make the jump and not just put their toe in the water," said Brad Rowe, an adjunct professor at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and chief executive of the research and consulting firm Botec Analysis.
But L.A. lawmakers have also imposed a long list of restrictions on where marijuana shops and other businesses can open their doors, amid concerns that the pot industry could be a new source of nuisance or blight.
Marijuana industry groups have bristled at some of those rules, which were tightened as the city regulations were drafted, while some neighborhood groups had pressed for much stricter requirements.
"We need to ensure that our communities, and particularly communities of color ... are not negatively impacted by this industry," Councilwoman Nury Martinez said.
Under the new regulations, pot shops can open their doors only in specific commercial and industrial zones and must operate at least 700 feet from schools, public parks and libraries, child care centers, alcohol and drug treatment centers and other "sensitive" sites, as well as from other pot retailers.
Other kinds of marijuana businesses, including growers and manufacturers, would be confined to industrial zones and banned within 600 feet of schools. And marijuana manufacturers that use volatile solvents would also be prohibited within 200 feet of residential areas.
To prevent an "undue concentration" in neighborhoods, city leaders also decided to cap the number of pot shops, growers, manufacturers and marijuana "micro-businesses," which do a combination of things, allowed in each community.
Martinez argued that they were crucial to preventing marijuana businesses from clustering in poor and minority neighborhoods, recounting her frustrations with illegal pot shops flocking to Van Nuys.
The limits are based on population and zoning ratios. City officials have calculated that under those restrictions, no more than 390 pot shops, 336 growers and 520 marijuana manufacturers could currently be licensed across the city.
Micro-businesses, which could also count toward the limits on pot shops or growers if they cultivate or sell marijuana, would be limited to a maximum of 520.
However, planning officials say that in many neighborhoods, zoning restrictions may prevent the number of marijuana businesses from ever reaching those maximum numbers. Virgil Grant, president of the industry group Southern California Coalition, argued that there was no need for such caps because the required buffers from sensitive sites would create "an organic cap."
Sarah Armstrong, who serves as policy chair of the coalition, said she was worried about whether growers would be able to find enough space. "The great beating heart of the industry is the cultivators," Armstrong said. "Without that, there is no industry."
But cannabis entrepreneurs nonetheless heralded the new regulations as a victory, allowing business to move forward in what is expected to be one of the hottest marijuana markets in the country. Ricardo Mendoza, who has managed a marijuana shop near Culver City, said his dispensary was planning to set up shop in the San Fernando Valley.
"It sounds like they really want to do this the right way," Mendoza said.
It is unclear exactly how many pot shops and other marijuana businesses already exist in Los Angeles. Fewer than 140 shops were expected to be allowed to avoid local prosecution under Proposition D, which voters approved four years ago, but tax records revealed that hundreds more had continued to operate.
Under the new regulations, existing shops operating in line with Proposition D will be first in line for city licenses.
The complex regulations also lay out how marijuana businesses will be vetted and inspected, set goals for local hiring, require security and video surveillance, and bar marijuana or alcohol from being consumed at shops, among a host of other rules.
And even as the city provides a helping hand to pot entrepreneurs once jailed for marijuana crimes, it is blocking people who committed other kinds of violent or serious offenses from getting marijuana licenses for years after their convictions, a sign that the pot business is still seen as especially sensitive.
At Wednesday's meeting, lawmakers suggested a handful of changes to the regulations, including extending how long people convicted of violent crimes are barred from getting licenses. Those ideas and other disputed proposals — including barring cash for marijuana purchases — remain to be debated.
"It really does feel like we're building the plane in midair," Councilman Paul Krekorian said during the discussion. After Californians voted to legalize recreational marijuana, "it's been kind of left to us to figure it out. And figure it out we are doing."
3:30 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details about the ordinance, and reaction.