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L.A. councilman to propose ban on medical marijuana dispensaries

November 23, 2011 | 12:01 am

Councilman Jose Huizar

With new medical marijuana dispensaries opening in Los Angeles in the wake of judicial decisions that created more legal confusion, Councilman Jose Huizar plans to introduce a motion to ban them until the state Supreme Court steps in to resolve the issue.

“This wasn’t an easy decision, but I think if we do nothing at this moment and stick our heads in the sand we would be irresponsible,” said Huizar, whose district includes Eagle Rock, a neighborhood with a high concentration of dispensaries. “We’re concerned if we do nothing, we’re going to be in an even worse situation than before our ordinance.”

The motion would be the second to propose an end to the city’s troubled attempts to regulate storefront marijuana sales. Council members Bernard C. Parks and Jan Perry introduced a motion last month to ask city officials to make recommendations on how to eliminate dispensaries.

Medical marijuana activists, many of whom have attended council meetings for years to cajole and berate the city into adopting a workable ordinance, will strenuously oppose a ban.

“If they do a complete ban, where are the patients going to get their medicine?” said Yamileth Bolanos, president of the Greater Los Angeles Collective Alliance. “Medical marijuana is going to stay in the city no matter what. [Huizar is] choosing to have the gangs and the cartels running it rather than having the very best operators that they can.”

Los Angeles has struggled for years to control the number of dispensaries, which opened by the hundreds when the city failed to enforce its moratorium. The city’s efforts to put in place a medical marijuana ordinance it can enforce have been thwarted by court decisions.

The proposals for bans follow two key state appeals court rulings that have led Los Angeles and other municipalities -- even those friendly to medical marijuana -- to consider them.

In October, the court of appeal in Los Angeles ruled that Long Beach, which used a lottery to choose which dispensaries to allow, violated federal law because the city was, in essence, authorizing the distribution of an illegal drug. The decision, which Long Beach has appealed to the state Supreme Court, called into doubt whether cities and counties can adopt any regulations for controlling dispensaries, even zoning rules setting distances from schools.

And then this month, an appeals court in Riverside issued two decisions that were the clearest yet to find that state laws allowing marijuana for medical use do not prohibit dispensary bans.

Although Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich would not discuss what advice he has given the City Council, he and his top lawyers have left little doubt where they stand on how to read the court decisions.

“I think it gives us the authority to prohibit but not to authorize,” Trutanich said. “We’re definitely going to have to step very cautiously. This is an area that is fraught with land mines, not only legal land mines but political land mines.”

Huizar’s motion would repeal the current ordinance, which would have chosen 100 dispensaries in a lottery, and impose a ban until it is clear the city can regulate the stores.

“As we stand now, we really have an unenforceable ordinance,” he said. “We’re back where we started.”

The motion would also put the city on record supporting cannabis cultivation by patients and caregivers.

It’s unclear whether Huizar will be able to win enough votes to pass a ban. Since the council began to debate the issue 6 1/2 years ago, the panel has never tilted toward prohibition and has always sought to find a legal way to allow medical marijuana stores.

But Huizar’s move also comes as Los Angeles appears to be experiencing another uptick in the number of dispensaries. The South Robertson Neighborhood Council is planning to host a town hall on the contentious issue after two dispensaries opened last month next to two others. All four of them are closer to a temple and an elementary school than allowed by city law.

“Having businesses that seem to be completely outside the jurisdiction of the city is maddening,” said Doug Fitzsimmons, the neighborhood council president. He said the neighborhood has long fought to stamp out illegal drug dealing.

“We feel that suddenly having all these dispensaries pop up right there is sliding back into the bad old days and something we need to fight as a community,” he said.

After the issue appeared on the neighborhood council’s agenda, Fitzsimmons said he was contacted by other neighborhood councils. “This is a widespread problem,” he said. “It’s getting worse. The current legislative and legal environment is just emboldening people to open businesses because, frankly, the city is overtaxed.”

But as a supporter of medical marijuana, Fitzsimmons was torn about outlawing dispensaries, noting that some are run responsibly.

“If this is the only legal option that the city has, I reluctantly support it, but it’s denying people, I think, the legitimate right to medicine.”


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Photo: Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times