Dispensaries that launched cannabis in West Hollywood can continue to sell recreational pot — for now

A rainbow pot leaf has become the symbol for the “WeHo Originals,” four medical dispensaries that now fear extinction.
(Ana Venegas / For The Times)

West Hollywood’s first four marijuana dispensaries can continue selling recreational cannabis — a move they say is necessary to keep their businesses alive — after an emotional, and at times contentious, City Council meeting Monday night.

In a 4-1 vote, the council decided to allow the stores to maintain temporary licenses to sell recreational marijuana until the businesses that won permanent licenses are up and running — which could take from three to nine months.

Many in the standing-room-only meeting were clad in white T-shirts bearing a rainbow-colored marijuana leaf, the logo of the so-called “West Hollywood Originals.”


Councilman John Duran, a proponent of granting permanent licenses to the original stores outright, was the lone “no” vote.

The four original dispensaries, all of which were invited by the city to help launch West Hollywood’s cannabis market in 2003 and 2004, have long argued they should be rewarded with the right to sell adult retail cannabis after the passage of Proposition 64. Instead, the city decided the businesses should compete with nearly 100 other applicants for just eight licenses.

None of the original stores were among eight to win licenses, though two finished ninth and 10th among scorers. All have been operating under temporary licenses since last year.

A staff report filed last week by the city manager’s office advised extending those temporary licenses until March 2020 and then barring the stores from selling recreational cannabis to make way for the winners of the new licenses.

The report included a number of alternatives, including a proposal to modify the city’s cannabis ordinance and grant adult-use licenses to the original stores.

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While most council members questioned the wisdom of undermining the city’s competitive process, they also worried about endangering the city’s cannabis market as newer businesses continued to set up.

None of the eight pot shops awarded adult-use licenses have opened yet. Four did not even have addresses when they applied last year, and some are still trying to finalize lease or purchase agreements for commercial properties in West Hollywood, according to city records.

Officials say the earliest any of the stores are likely to open is September. But owners of some of the businesses said Monday night they might not open until next July.

Lindsey Horvath, the city’s mayor pro tem, proposed extending the original stores’ temporary licenses until some of the permanent license winners are ready for business, at which point the city can reevaluate the licensing agreements.

“Right now, our reality is the new businesses aren’t up and operating. … Right now we’re being asked to decide on hypotheticals,” she said.

During more than an hour of public comments, longtime residents pleaded with the City Council not to take away the stores they had patronized for more than a decade.

“If you say goodbye to these people, you are saying goodbye to your history,” said Sarah Armstrong, a patient of Los Angeles Patients and Caregivers Group.

Industry experts say California’s medical marijuana market is dwindling rapidly after the passage of Proposition 64. Owners of the original stores said they would go out of business if they were blocked from the recreational market.

Advocates for the new license holders, however, argued that the city’s competitive application process was designed to ensure licenses were granted based on merit, not public opinion. Councilman John Heilman said he regretted that the city had issued temporary licenses to the original stores in the first place, fearing it had set the stage for Monday’s contentious debate.

“They all agreed that this was temporary, that they had to go through the process like everybody else,” he said. “I’m a little bit annoyed. I don’t think they’re being honest with the community.”

A large portion of the community, however, seemed to disagree. Duran said the city had received hundreds of letters in support of the original dispensaries. Public comments that were supportive of the first four dispensaries often were met with raucous cheers Monday night, compared with polite clapping for comments against the stores.

Moments before the vote was cast, Duran implored his fellow council members to let customers choose which businesses stayed open in the city.

“Rather than eliminate one side or the other, let the free market determine who will survive,” he said.

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