The Los Angeles City Council Tuesday voted to allow medical marijuana dispensaries to continue to sell their products, but failed to reach a final vote on a medical marijuana ordinance that has been years in the works. The council will return to the ordinance at its December 2 meeting.
medical marijuana dispensary, Ventura Blvd., LA (courtesy wikimedia.org)
Observers had hoped the council might pass the ordinance Tuesday, but progress was derailed by contentious debate over the sales issue. LA City Attorney Carmen Trutanich and LA County District Attorney Steve Cooley had called for an outright ban on medical marijuana sales, saying that under their reading of the state's medical marijuana laws and court decisions, sales are not allowed. Cooley has threatened to prosecute dispensaries no matter what the city council does.
Council members, caught between fear of legal problems for the city and the expressed desire of constituents for safe access to medical marijuana, had some harsh words for prosecutors. Councilmen Ed Reyes, who has been the principal in trying to write the ordinance, protested that the City Attorney's Office was trying to impose "a political view that has nothing to do with objective advice."
He wasn't the only one. "I think we're getting advice from one direction," said Councilman Paul Koretz. "I would like to see the City Attorney work with us to help us get to where we want to be."
In the end, the council rejected the advice of the prosecutors, instead adopting an amendment that would allow for "cash contributions, reimbursements and payments for actual expenses of growth, cultivation, and provision [...] in accordance with state law."
"We have some very elegant and flexible language that will adjust as state law is defined," said Council President Eric Garcetti.
While the council did not succeed in passing the ordinance, it did make substantial progress. In the seven-hour-long session, it dealt with more than 50 proposed changes to the ordinance. Among other amendments considered was one by council members Koretz and Reyes that would have required police to get a court order to review dispensary records. After Councilman Jose Huizar and other members objected, saying the amendment would hamper efforts to weed out "bad" dispensaries, the amendment failed.
Reyes introduced an amendment eliminating the ordinance's requirement that dispensaries have no more than five pounds of marijuana on hand and grow it on-site, but Huizar objected, saying it would encourage a black market and was "a dangerous path."
"I'm not advocating for the black market, gangs, cartels to take advantage of this," Reyes retorted, "but we can't choke it to the point where it does not function." Then, Reyes withdrew his amendment, asking Huizar to draft an alternative.
The council also approved an amendment limiting patients and caregivers to membership in one collective, but with a provision allowing for emergency purchases. That didn't go over well with medical marijuana advocates, who complained that it would limit access for patients.
The council also adopted a series of amendments from Councilman Koretz, based on West Hollywood's ordinance regulating dispensaries. Those amendments require dispensaries to have unarmed security guards patrolling a two-block area, to deposit cash daily, and to provide contact information to police and neighbors within 500 feet.
The council squabbled over a number of amendments that sought to micro-manage the dispensaries, ranging from a $100,000 salary cap to restrictions on doctors writing recommendations. "This industry is rife with people ripping off money from people who are seriously ill," said Councilman Ricardo Alarcon, who offered the salary cap amendment. "We ought to cap compensation because I believe it will be abused, people will be making millions.
Those amendments excited the wrath of Councilwoman Janice Hahn."We're going too far from what we need to be doing," Hahn said with some exasperation. "Now you're going after compensation, you're going after the doctors writing these notes. If you take the logic that people in compassionate professions shouldn't be making more than $100,000, we could go after every doctor in this city. This is not what we're here for, which is to regulate these dispensaries to make sure people have safe access," she said to loud cheers from the audience. "Let's stay focused."
In the end, Alarcon withdrew his amendment. City staff will instead review compensation standards for non-profit organizations and return to the issue later.
After heated debate, the council also deferred action on two contentious issues: a cap on the number of dispensaries to be allowed, and location restrictions that would bar dispensaries from operating within either 500 or 1000 feet of schools, parks, and other child-friendly locations. The council asked city officials to return next week with studies on caps and maps that would demarcate what areas within the city would be okay for dispensaries. Councilmember Reyes displayed one such map at the hearing, arguing that the location limits would dramatically restrict the areas where dispensaries could operate.
While the ordinance anticipates setting a cap on the number of dispensaries at 70, or one for every 57,000 residents, there were indications during the debate that members could go for a cap as high as 200, but even that would reduce the number of dispensaries in the city by 80%.
"We're fairly pleased by the progress that has occurred in the council over the past week or so, and we're certainly pleased the city decided to allow sales of medical marijuana," said Kris Hermes, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access (ASA), the nation's largest medical marijuana advocacy group. "We are concerned that any limit on dispensaries not be an arbitrary cap, and that the council decide on based on what patients need and where they need it."
ASA's Hermes said there was still work to be done, especially on the issue of a cap on the number of dispensaries. "There are a few more days left yet to lobby the council and urge them to move ahead cautiously in the area of capping or limiting the number of dispensaries," he said. "If the demand is there, there should be sufficient facilities to meet that demand. Unfortunately, I don't think that's the way the council's going."
There are currently an estimated one thousand dispensaries in Los Angeles. There were four when the council began working on an ordinance way back in 2005. There were 186 when the council voted to institute a moratorium two years later.
The City Council will return to the medical marijuana ordinance at its December 2 meeting.