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L.A. City Council panels reject ban on medical marijuana sales

November 16, 2009 |  3:17 pm

Rejecting the advice of the city attorney, two Los Angeles City Council committees voted today to scrap a proposed provision that would have banned the sale of medical marijuana.

The controversial measure, first proposed a year and a half ago, delayed deliberations as council members debated the wisdom of ignoring the opinion of the city's top prosecutor. But about four hours into a raucous hearing, council members made it clear they were ready to move on.

"When can we finally stop the merry-go-round?" said Councilman Dennis Zine, who kicked off the City Council's consideration of the issue in 2005 when concerns about dispensaries first surfaced. He proposed an alternative provision that would allow dispensaries to accept cash for marijuana as long as they comply with state law.

William Carter, the chief deputy city attorney, repeatedly argued that state law and state court decisions make it clear that collectives can cultivate medical marijuana but not sell it. "We're stuck with the current law," he said.

But Zine urged the council members to adopt an interpretation of the law that would not upend how dispensaries operate in Los Angeles and most of the state. "I'm saying let's push that to the edge," he said.

After the members of the planning committee and Public Safety Committee voted, David Berger, a special assistant to City Atty. Carmen Trutanich, said it is up to the council to decide whether to accept the office's legal advice. "Our duty is to advise them on what the law allows for and not to go on a whim," he said. "They decided to go a different way."

Councilman Ed Reyes, who has overseen most of the council's consideration of the issue, expressed exasperation with the city attorney's office. "I think they are very, very narrow in that they're taking their prosecutorial perspective," he said.

The long-delayed measure could be taken up by the full council as soon as Wednesday. "We need something on the books now. There is no reason why we should delay," Reyes said.

Four years ago, when the City Council first began to look into regulating dispensaries, there were four. A year later, there were 98. In 2007, when the city adopted a moratorium, 186 dispensaries were allowed to remain in business. Now, the city attorney's office estimates there could be as many as a thousand spread throughout the city, and heavily concentrated in some neighborhoods.

At the hearing, scores of dispensary operators and marijuana users argued that the proposed ban would force them to close. "It simply won't work," said Don Duncan, a Los Angeles resident who is the California director of Americans for Safe Access.

A vote for a sales ban would have taken Los Angeles into uncharted legal territory. Duncan's organization and the Union of Medical Marijuana Patients threatened to sue the city if the council adopted the provision, arguing that the city attorney's opinion was flawed.

About 400 people crowded into the main council chamber for the hearing. Most of the speakers were supporters of medical marijuana who became increasingly rowdy. They repeatedly interrupted the handful of neighborhood activists who spoke, urging the adoption of an ordinance that would reduce the number of dispensaries and clamp down on operations that create nuisances.

"Do the right thing. Protect your community. You're going to get sued anyway," said James O'Sullivan with the Miracle Mile Residential Assn.

-- John Hoeffel at City Hall