Issue of medical pot is on agenda

CITY HALL — Amid a statewide push to legalize medical marijuana as a taxable product, the City Council today is expected to introduce a 45-day moratorium on pot dispensaries while officials take stock of the evolving legal landscape.

Oakland residents on July 21 voted overwhelming to levy an $18 tax per $1,000 of medical marijuana sold. A week earlier, a Los Angeles city councilwoman proposed consideration of a similar tax. And a proposed state ballot measure filed July 28 would move the tax statewide, allowing those 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of pot. The measure still needs more than 430,000 signatures to qualify for the November ballot.

Glendale has no dispensaries, but city officials said interest has increased recently. What had been a couple of inquiries a year has turned into several within the last few months, they said.

Medical marijuana dispensaries are prohibited under the city’s zoning codes, but city attorneys have proposed the moratorium to close Glendale’s borders until the legal issues swirling around the controversial businesses are fully assessed.

A major issue is the conflict between state law, which allows for the use of small amounts of medically prescribed marijuana, and federal law, which bans it. The legal ambiguity has meant complications in court for several Southland cities that have tried to explicitly ban all medical marijuana dispensaries outright.

The urgency ordinance, which is set to be introduced tonight and go to a vote next week, would take effect immediately upon its approval. Under state law, the moratorium can be extended to last up to two years.

The moratorium would not affect any existing businesses because no dispensaries operate within Glendale and they are already banned under current zoning codes, said Assistant Planning Director Tim Foy.

But the dispensaries are not listed explicitly in the zoning code as being banned, and outside interest in opening them here has increased, city officials said.

“Given the interest, it’s better we take a look at it,” said City Atty. Scott Howard.

State law permits the cultivation and possession of marijuana for limited medical purposes.

But recent court rulings have made it clear that despite California and other states’ laws legalizing medical marijuana, federal law still prohibits the possession, use and distribution of the drug, even for medicinal purposes.

Cities across the state have reacted differently, with some, like Berkeley and West Hollywood, embracing the dispensaries while others, such as Pasadena and Anaheim, enacted moratoriums or bans.

Anaheim’s ban on medical marijuana dispensaries was upheld by a trial court judge in February 2008, but that ruling was appealed. A state appellate court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case later this month.

The court’s decision will be a major consideration for eventual recommendations to the City Council, officials said.

City officials pointed to Los Angeles, which issued a moratorium on the dispensaries after they started cropping up illegally.

“We have seen how the city of Los Angeles has had such dramatic public-safety-related problems,” said Lt. Bruce Fox, of the Glendale Police Department’s Narcotics Unit. “They seem to be playing catch-up with their moratorium.”

But that was before Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn proposed consideration of a possible tax on medical marijuana, which opponents fear could move the drug further into the mainstream, again spurring more storefronts.

Complicating matters is the new directive from U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder that federal agents would not pursue or prosecute dispensaries operating in compliance with state laws.

But city officials have argued the storefronts lead to burglaries, vandalism and illegal drug sales.

And Glendale’s potential moratorium comes at a time when the city is seeing more marijuana usage and drug-related arrests, according to police reports.

“The prevalence of marijuana is at one of the highest levels I’ve ever seen,” Fox said.

He blamed California’s Compassionate Use Act for confusing the public and hampering local law enforcement agencies.

“It seems like the whole law is being flaunted; the state law is just kind of a joke,” Fox said. “If you think about the intent of the law and the sick people it was supposed to help, and you stop an 18-year-old kid who has a prescription for anxiety, it’s frustrating.”


 MELANIE HICKEN covers City Hall. She may be reached at (818) 637-3235 or by e-mail at melanie.hicken@ latimes.com.

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