LA City Council Plans To End Medical Marijuna Free-For-All

Produced by HuffPost's Eyes & Ears Citizen Journalism Unit.

The Los Angeles City Council is close to ending to the free-for-all that has led to 800 new marijuana dispensaries opening in the last two years, despite stiff opposition from patients, advocacy groups and LA's growing cannabis business lobby, who say the current bill is incoherent and wrong-headed.

Los Angeles City Council met on Wednesday to put the finishing touches on an ordinance, two years in the making, that will initiate strict regulation of the city's booming medical marijuana business, which has operated since 1996 under minimal guidelines. The ordinance is expected to come to a vote on Tuesday.

If passed in its current form, the ordinance would close the doors of more than 80% of the 1000 or so marijuana dispensaries now operating in LA, a situation which Councilman Dennis Zine called "out of control." It would also restrict compensation for dispensary owners and employees to levels commensurate with pay at other non-profits, reining in what many see as a for-profit-perversion of patients' collectives. "There's no question they're making a lot of money on it," said Zine of dispensary owners after the meeting. "And that's not he purpose of the Compassionate Use Act," the landmark bill which first authorized medical marijuana consumption in California.

Both measures would move LA law closer to regulations in cities like Oakland, which has limited the number of medical marijuana dispensaries to four. "I think the Council's action is appropriate and prudent," said Stephen DeAngelo, the founder of Harborside Health Center, Oakland's largest dispensary. DeAngelo said he believes that patients are better served by fewer, larger dispensaries which can afford to offer a wide variety of services under one roof.

Operators and advocates in Los Angeles argue that a cap on the number of dispensaries would restrict competition and artificially raise the prices of medical marijuana, despite dispensaries' non-profit status. At City Hall this morning, representatives from a variety of advocacy organizations--ASA, GAPP, LACA--contested what they see as an "arbitrary cap" on the number of dispensaries in LA.

In theory, the ordinance now before City Council would set a cap of 70 dispensaries, but it contains an exemption for those that have operated continuously and lawfully under the same management since 2007, when the City first attempted to regulate dispensaries with an "Interim Control Ordinance" that temporarily suspended new licenses. No one is quite sure how many of these "pre-ICO" collectives remain -- the number could be as high as 186.

"186 is obviously better than 70," said Kris Hermes of Americans for Safe Access. "They're considering implementing a cap that's not based on any social or health indicators," he said. "It's not based on any evidence of demand, it's not based on patient population, and it's not based on distribution or demographic of that population. There's a lot of factors that the city is overlooking in making a decision limiting the number of facilities in the city."

Council members left the meeting with two separate drafts of the ordinance--one that would require dispensaries to be more than 500 feet from so-called sensitive uses (churches, parks, schools and rehab centers for example) and one that would raise that figure to 1000 feet.

Even opponents of the legislation acknowledge that the City Council is bound to pass some form of the ordinance very soon. "They're going to pass something," said Dan Halbert, President of the Green Alliance for Patients and Providers, "but it's not going to stand up to our attorneys in court." Halbert claims that the present ordinance is nothing more than an "illegal moratorium in a different package," referring to the city's temporary ban on new dispensary licenses, whose extension was overturned in Superior Court last fall.

The GAPP has already been raising money to fund a class action suit and a petition campaign against the City. They hope to collect the 24,000 signatures in a 30 day period required to keep the ordinance from going into effect if it passes.

Part of what has clouded the debate on the present ordinance is fallout from the Compassionate Use Act of 1996. The absence of statewide legislation in the bill meant that each county was left to create their own rules and guideline for dispensaries. For the most part, LA shirked this responsibility. This has left dispensaries open to a raft of criticisms from law enforcement and other parties about boosting the black market for illicit drugs and disrupting residential neighborhoods, making a moral argument of what is actually an issue of regulation and enforcement. "There's a lot of rhetoric about medical marijuana as some social ill," one man said during public comment at the City Council meeting. "The debate about whether this should be legal," said another, "that already happened. This is about access."

As he stepped out of the elevator in the afternoon, a fellow employee stopped Bell, the city planner. "Is marijuana over, Alan?"

"Yeah," he said. "Till Tuesday."

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