Pot dispensary owners ask LA Council to review ordinance

Jars full of medical marijuana are seen at Sunset Junction medical marijuana dispensary on May 11, 2010 in Los Angeles, California.
Jars full of medical marijuana are seen at Sunset Junction medical marijuana dispensary on May 11, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Medical marijuana dispensary operators and patients urged the Los Angeles City Council today to revise the ordinance that governs sales of the drug in Los Angeles, saying the current version would close more than 100 legitimate pot shops.

However, a number of council members said they were inclined to continue enforcing the ordinance as it stands, and make changes only when the courts order them to do so.

Oliver Summers of the Greater Los Angeles Collective Alliance told the council, "Just stop, think, and do something right for a change.''

"These are some decent operators that you're throwing out in order to punish the bad operators,'' he added. "I am not a criminal.''

Interviewed after the council meeting, Councilman Jose Huizar said, "I think this process is working just fine.''

"We have a new ordinance that is regulating an industry that has never been regulated before in the city of Los Angeles,'' he said. "There are going to be some bumps in the road.''

The ordinance set a cap of 70 dispensaries in Los Angeles but temporarily allowed about 180 dispensaries to stay open -- specifically, those which registered with the city before a moratorium was enacted in 2007 --
provided their operators adhere to certain restrictions, including staying away from homes, schools, religious institutions and other dispensaries.

If any of the 180 dispensaries goes out of business, it would not be replaced until the number drops to 70, according to the ordinance.

After a preliminary evaluation, however, the City Clerk's office found only about 40 of the dispensaries were eligible to continue operating.

The other 140 were disqualified, many of them because of a little-known provision in the ordinance that barred a management change in the last three years.

The city attorney has since sued the operators of those dispensaries, demanding that they close shop.

"This aggressive posture is inappropriate,'' said Don Duncan, California director of Americans for Safe Access, the nation's largest medical marijuana advocacy group.

"It's ironic that those collectives that for the last few years have stood with this council, worked with this council, and jumped through every hoop -- reasonable or otherwise -- would now be the target of the most
aggressive enforcement,'' he said. "We may need to go back to the drawing board.''

But Huizar said the council should let the courts weigh in on the ordinance, which he considers a work in progress.

"What we're doing now is waiting for the outcome of that litigation so that we may adjust our ordinance,'' he said. "We will adjust some things depending on what the judge finds is legal or not.''

Councilman Ed Reyes said the ordinance has a mechanism for increasing the number of dispensaries to 70, so that patients can have better access to medical marijuana.

"We'll probably move in the direction of a lottery, and make sure those participating in the lottery are meeting the criteria of the law, until we can basically just get to a point where we have access while not penalizing communities,'' he said.

City Council President Eric Garcetti said maintaining a small number of dispensaries is risky.

"Part of my worry was if we concentrate this in the hands of too few, this can become beacons of crime and make it very difficult for access for patients who badly need the medicine,'' he said.

Garcetti vowed to examine how the City Clerk's office has been interpreting the ordinance, specifically the provision on management changes.

"It may be that in their attempts to enforce the law, there have been cases where people have misunderstood the intent or gone too far with (the interpretation),'' he said.

"There are going to be collectives that opened up outside the rules who will complain to us but who we simply can't bend the rules for. But in other cases where there have been individual collectives who by all accounts have been playing by the rules, we need to make sure they're being treated fairly,'' he said.

The council passed the ordinance after the number of dispensaries across the city rose to several hundred, because operators were able to take advantage of a legal loophole.

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