LA supervisors move to ban pot dispensaries

Dave Warden, a bud tender at Private Organic Therapy (P.O.T.), a non-profit co-operative medical marijuana dispensary, displays various types of marijuana available to patients on October 19, 2009 in Los Angeles, California.
Dave Warden, a bud tender at Private Organic Therapy (P.O.T.), a non-profit co-operative medical marijuana dispensary, displays various types of marijuana available to patients on October 19, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. David McNew/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Board of Supervisors moved a step closer today to a ban on all medical marijuana outlets in unincorporated areas, though it is not clear that such an ordinance could withstand legal challenges.

Supervisor Michael Antonovich proposed the moratorium, arguing that without it, unincorporated communities next to cities with bans would become the "locale of choice'' for dispensary operators forced to move by municipal regulations.

"To impose this burden on the unincorporated areas is wrong,'' he said. "To turn our backs on these residents would be irresponsible.''

Several residents appeared in support of the proposed ban, along with Assistant District Attorney Jackie Lacey, who said the county's top prosecutor, Steve Cooley, supported a moratorium.

"These places are turning over a tremendous amount of cash and are attracting armed robbers,'' Lacey said. "Where there are armed robbers, there will be loss of life.''

Fatal shootings at two dispensaries in Echo Park and Hollywood June 24 helped create momentum for the ban.

On advice of county counsel, the board chose not to impose a temporary moratorium on dispensaries while the ordinance is under consideration. Counsel said such a moratorium would be unenforceable given prior actions by the board.

The ban, if instituted, may also face legal challenges. An outright ban instituted by the city of Anaheim is subject to a pending suit in the California Court of Appeals, according to County Counsel Rick Weiss.

The board ultimately agreed by unanimous vote to have staffers draft an ordinance banning the dispensaries and seek ways to more quickly shut down illegal operators, with a report due back in two weeks.

A public hearing would be held before any ordinance is passed.

"We have not heard the last of the issue, by any means,'' Weiss said.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky argued that a ban might even weaken the county's position in blocking legal dispensaries, while doing nothing to bar illegal operators.

"This ban will not do any more or any less than our existing ordinance,'' Yaroslavsky said.

A 2006 Los Angeles County ordinance prohibits dispensaries within 1,000 feet of churches, daycare centers, libraries, playgrounds and schools. Only five dispensaries have sought licenses from the county, and three of those applications are still pending, according to the Regional Planning Commission.

"The current ordinance has stood the test of time,'' Yaroslavsky said. "We have a veritable ban.''

But several pot shops have opened without the operators obtaining permits, including one two doors away from a county library and another across from a sheriff's training facility, according to members of the board.

Supervisor Gloria Molina questioned whether restraining orders to block illegal operations could be put in place more quickly.

County counsel Andrea Ordin said the process, which typically takes three months, might be expedited.

"I'm not sure a new ordinance is the right answer, though,'' Ordin said.

The debate before the board highlighted concerns of those who generally oppose medical marijuana and others who rely on it.

"I understand the frustration,'' Yaroslavsky said. "My neighborhood has been impacted more by these dispensaries than anybody (else on the board).''

But the supervisor added that he had personal friends with terminal illnesses who had benefited from medical marijuana, and hoped not to deny access to palliative care.

Others, including patients, appealed to the board to allow users of medical marijuana safe access and said the supervisors could use existing law to keep communities safe.

"I'm here to speak for those who can't be here today -- our elderly, our cancer patients,'' said resident Elizabeth Bly. "These people need safe access and they need it guaranteed.''

After years of dragging its feet, the city of Los Angeles this spring codified regulations for medical marijuana dispensaries, ordering more than 400 shops out of step with city laws to close by June 7.

The city is working toward capping the number of shops citywide at 70, but will allow scores of others that registered with the city during a 2007 moratorium to remain open temporarily.

Taking a different tack, the Long Beach City Council will consider the possibility that marijuana sales can help bridge the city's $18.5 million budget deficit. At tonight's council meeting, members are slated to discuss a proposal to levy a 5 percent gross receipts tax on medical marijuana businesses.

The plan also includes a 5-10 percent tax on gross receipts of other marijuana-related businesses that could spring up if marijuana is legalized for recreational, non-medical use under Proposition 19 in November's statewide election.

If the Long Beach council decides to move forward, the issue will be the subject of a public hearing Aug. 3 and then potentially offered as a ballot measure.

"We tax alcohol. We tax cigarettes. Why wouldn't we look at taxing marijuana?'' Long Beach Councilman Patrick O'Donnell told the Los Angeles Times. "We're turning over every rock to find new revenues, and under one of those rocks may be marijuana.''

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