In October, when Gov. Jerry Brown signed three bills establishing a statewide system to regulate medicinal cannabis, he called it a long-overdue framework that would "make sure patients have access to medical marijuana, while ensuring a robust tracking system." He should have added: "Everywhere in the state, except Los Angeles," because it turns out California's strict licensing regime won't apply to the state's largest city. What's more, under the terms of the new state law, if L.A. doesn't change its existing rules, all medicinal pot shops in the city's boundaries will be illegal in 2018.
In other words, it is possible that there's even more chaos ahead for this city's already-unacceptably-chaotic medical marijuana regime. It took nearly 20 years after Californians passed the Compassionate Use Act for the state to adopt a comprehensive system to regulate the cultivation, transportation and sale of medical marijuana — and now it is going to exclude 10% of the state's population and a significant piece of the cannabis marketplace, and come into seemingly intractable conflict with the city's most recent effort to manage the situation.
Los Angeles failed multiple times to regulate medical marijuana, but finally in 2013 it passed Proposition D. That ballot measure allowed 135 dispensaries, all of which had been in business for at least six years, to remain open, while banning others. However in a complicated, lawyerly maneuver, the measure did not actually permit those 135 dispensaries to operate — which legal experts said, at the time, the city could not do because marijuana remains illegal under federal law. Prop D merely said the city would not prosecute those 135 shops.
And that's the problem. Under the state's new Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act, California would, for the first time, issue licenses to medical cannabis businesses. But the state will only grant them to businesses with permits from their local jurisdictions. Because L.A. doesn't issue permits, growers, testing labs and dispensaries in L.A. won't be eligible for state licenses. If L.A. pot shops stay open after 2018 — when the state expects to begin licensing and enforcement — they could theoretically face criminal prosecution.
Dispensary operators, unsurprisingly, are not waiting for the city to resolve this conflict. The Greater Los Angeles Collective Alliance is drafting a measure for the city ballot in November that would impose a new local permitting scheme not only for dispensaries, but also for growers, manufacturers and delivery services — all of which are illegal or questionably legal under Prop D. The ballot measure could also remove the 135-dispensary cap, potentially opening the door to hundreds of legal pot shops. At one point before Prop D went into effect, city officials estimated there were more than 800 medicinal marijuana businesses in the city.
The City Council should not let marijuana businesses set city policy. L.A. leaders need to come up with their own permitting and regulatory scheme, either at the ballot or by amendment, setting reasonable rules and reasonable limits on where and how pot businesses can operate. The new policy should establish a process by which medicinal cannabis businesses that meet the requirements can get a permit — which is less of a legal problem now that the federal government has said it won't prosecute in states with medical marijuana laws — and a process for revoking those permits if owners break the rules or create a nuisance. The council ought to consider whether to cap the number of dispensaries as Prop D now does, or whether strict zoning or a conditional use permit requirement could effectively limit the number of pot shops in a community, as the city now does with liquor stores.
The City Council and Mayor Eric Garcetti must lead on this issue, rather than sitting back and allowing the increasingly powerful marijuana industry to set its own rules. (Imagine the outcry if oil or billboard companies tried to develop their own permitting rules through a ballot measure.) California and L.A. voters have made it clear that patients should be able obtain medical marijuana, and it is the city's job to develop policies that allow patient access while protecting neighborhoods from being overrun. It is particularly pressing because the medical marijuana rules adopted today are expected to become the template if state voters legalize recreational marijuana in November.