Politics, government and public life for Southern California

LA city voters could dramatically reduce access to medical marijuana

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Los Angeles city voters will choose between three medical marijuana measures on the May 21 ballot. At stake is the fate of hundreds of marijuana dispensaries.

A Studio City strip mall is home to the Perennial Wellness Center. You wouldn’t know it’s a medical marijuana dispensary, except for the telltale green cross and opaque windows. Inside, owner Sam Humeid shows off his array of products.

“We have a shelf full of edibles,” he said. “Everything from teas and honey sticks to full strength brownies and peppermint patties.”

When one of his regular customers walks in, Humeid warmly greets him. Kevin Kipnis, 49, prefers marijuana to codeine or anything stronger for the back pain he suffers as a result of a car accident.

“Usually a couple hits in the morning, couple hits at night, and I’m pretty good,” he said.

You’d think he would know all about the medical marijuana measures on the L.A. city ballot. You’d be wrong. “Its confusing. It really is,” said Kipnis.

That’s a common sentiment among voters as they prepare to decide three measures – D, E, and F – which would regulate medical marijuana dispensaries. Backers of Measure E have abandoned it and have thrown their support behind Measure D.

Measure D would shut down most of the hundreds of dispensaries in L.A. and allow only the 135 or so that first registered with the city six years ago.  Perennial is one of them. That’s why Humeid is selling his customers on it.

“Measure D allows for the original dispensaries that put their neck on the line saying ‘heh we’re here to offer medical cannabis to the patient base’,” Humeid said.

In key ways, Measures D and F are alike: they require dispensaries to be at least 1,000 feet from schools and raise taxes on them from $50 to $60 per $1,000 in gross receipts.

The big difference is that F would allow an unlimited number of dispensaries. Political consultant Garry South of the F campaign said this approach is more fair than limiting the number to 135.

“It makes no sense whatsoever for “D” to grandfather in dispensaries regardless of their quality and track record just because they were registered with the city since 2007,” South said.

Measure D would leave the city with fewer but much larger marijuana outlets to serve, by some estimates, at least 100,000 medical marijuana users in the city, said South.

Measure F supporters tout better regulation of dispensaries with required testing of marijuana for toxins, mandatory annual audits submitted to the city controller and required on-site parking.

“F has a much stricter regulatory regimen,” South said.

City officials have said regulating so many marijuana shops would take a lot of money and personnel the city may not have.

Measure D consultant Mike Shimpock says mandatory toxins testing has been rejected in court and on-site parking is window dressing.

“So they have included all these things they know are in contravention to state law but that poll really well,” Shimpock said. “In that way they are trying to trick voters.”

Measure D has the backing of the 135 dispensaries that it would protect. It also has the support of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union that is organizing dispensary employees. A majority of the city council voted to place it on the ballot.

Councilman Bill Rosendahl was part of a the L.A. City Council majority that placed Measure D on the ballot. He uses marijuana for his cancer.

“I was able to get six hours of sleep a night uninterrupted with no pain,” Rosendahl said in a video to constituents. "That came from the medical marijuana. Without it, I wouldn’t be alive today.”

Measure F has the support of the hundreds of dispensaries that would be forced to close.

The two measures mostly are battling each other. But a third camp exists – one that urges a no vote on both. Councilman Jose Huizar said he supports the medicinal use of marijuana but most pot shops are nuisances.

"You sit in front of these dispensaries in my district and it's mostly young people going in there who are using it for recreational purposes,” said Huizar.

At Perennial Wellness Center, the discussion turns to good and bad dispensaries. Kevin Kipnis has seen both in his search for the weed that relieves his pain.

“Some are super scary, you walk in there and they’re making up prices on the spot," said Kipnis. "Like, you wonder what’s going on there."

What’s sometimes been called the Wild West culture of medical marijuana dispensaries in L.A. may soon be tamed with the passage of Measure D or Measure F.  If voters reject both, the Los Angeles City Council would be free to enact an outright ban on dispensaries based on a recent California Supreme Court ruling that said such bans are allowed.

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