Long Beach City Council to draft new medical pot ordinance

Supplies at Avalon Wellness Center in Long Beach.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
<i>This post has been updated and corrected. See the notes below for details.</i>

The Long Beach City Council voted Tuesday night to draft an ordinance to allow and regulate medical marijuana collectives within the city, opening another chapter in the years-long saga over whether the city has the authority to control dispensaries.

In an 8-0 vote, council members directed the city attorney to draft an ordinance that would once again allow a limited number of collectives to operate within city limits.

The council debate came a day after a group seeking to overturn the city’s medical marijuana ban was dealt a blow in court. A federal judge ruled officials would not have to place a medical marijuana initiative on the city’s April ballot, or do a full count of more than 43,000 signatures seeking a special election.


“Our city needs the same authority as other cities and states to regulate this substance in plain, public view,” said Councilwoman Suja Lowenthal. “Right now, I think we have an obligation to consider what 30,000 residents believe is a worthwhile ballot issue.”

Lowenthal and two co-sponsors had initially planned to ask the city attorney to draft a medical marijuana ballot measure to be placed on the April ballot.

But council members Tuesday evening agreed that drafting a new ordinance was their preferred method. The board asked the city attorney to return with a proposal that included caps on the number of collectives in each district and citywide, kept the dispensaries in areas zoned for industrial uses, and to consider the proximity to schools and residences.

City Atty. Charles Parkin said his office will proceed with caution, considering Long Beach’s complicated legal battles in trying to regulate marijuana dispensaries.

The city’s first ordinance, introduced by Lowenthal and passed in 2009, created a lottery system for permits, and limited the number and location of storefront dispensaries.

Those regulations were challenged by a non-permitted collective, and a state appeals court threw out the ordinance, saying the city’s regulations conflicted with federal law.

In response, the City Council opted to use zoning regulations to ban all collectives of three people or more.

“This is fluid,” Parkin said. “I can’t give them any guarantee that what they adopt will not be challenged or overturned by a court.”

He added that by using local zoning laws to regulate dispensaries as the council directed, the city may stand a better chance of surviving a legal challenge.

[Updated, 7:47 a.m. PDT Sept. 11: The city attorney’s office will now work with planning commission staff to develop proposed regulations. Zoning ordinances must be approved by the city’s planning commission before they can be considered by the City Council.]

The new effort comes as a legal case against the Long Beach city clerk over the medical marijuana ballot initiative is pending.

In February, a group called the Long Beach Citizens’ and Patients’ Rights submitted more than 43,000 signatures, hoping to earn a spot on a special election ballot. But after a random sampling of the signatures, City Clerk Larry Herrera determined the proponents were 18 signatures short of triggering a full count of signatures.

Two of the proponents sued, arguing that some of the signatures had been invalidated due to clerical errors, and that others had been denied because they had moved in the time between signing the petition and the verification process.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins ruled that Herrera acted “reasonably, not arbitrarily or fraudulently” in determining that proponents of the measure had not obtained the required 15% of registered voters for a special election.

Proponents also asked the judge to force the city clerk to place the proposal on Long Beach’s next regular election, scheduled for April. Collins denied that request, even though the group had submitted enough signatures to qualify for the April election, saying the petition’s language had specified a special election on the matter.

“We were disappointed by the ruling, but it’s only round one,” Gautam Dutta, an attorney for the group, told The Times. Dutta said the group may consider dropping the lawsuit if it can work with city leaders to develop a measure.

Jina Nam, attorney for the Long Beach Collective Assn., which assisted Dutta’s group in gathering signatures, said she was “pleasantly surprised” by the council’s action Tuesday night.

“We’re very appreciative of the City Council’s efforts to take leadership in this,” Nam said. “But we want to see them work with us to balance the rights of the city as well as the patients and collective members.”

Councilwoman Gerrie Schipske raised issues about the city’s hopes to tax medical marijuana, pointing out that other types of medicine are not taxed in California, and that any proposal for a tax probably would also have to go to the voters.

But she applauded efforts to avoid a long march to the April ballot box.

“We know it won’t be perfect … but by crafting it carefully behind the rail, with your input and the city attorney’s guidance … it can be changed, it can be refined, and it can be improved,” Schipske said.

Parkin told council members his office will have to proceed under the assumption that Long Beach is still bound by the previous appeals court decision, and will have to try to craft regulations to fit within those parameters. While Dutta and Nam disagree, they say they are cautiously optimistic about what the city could come back with.

In May, the California Supreme Court affirmed the right of cities to use zoning and other local regulations to ban pot dispensaries. Two weeks ago, the Obama administration announced that it would not interfere in states that tightly regulate medical marijuana.

“From the citizen’s viewpoint, they look up the freeway and see Los Angeles is [regulating medical marijuana] and ask why we can’t,” Parkin said. “The legal road map that we face with trying to something similar is very difficult.”

[For the record, 10 a.m. Sept. 11: An earlier version of this post incorrectly spelled the names of Jina Nam and Guatam Dutta.]


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