LA council set to vote on marijuana ordinance


Published: Tuesday, January 19, 2010 at 9:42 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 19, 2010 at 9:42 a.m.

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles City Council is poised to vote on a medical marijuana ordinance after months of hammering out criteria that would shutter hundreds of dispensaries.

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In this Nov. 17, 2009 file photo, traditional canning jars hold varieties of marijuana in a cabinet at the La Brea Collective medical marijuana dispensary in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles City Council is poised to vote on a medical marijuana ordinance after months of hammering out criteria that would shutter hundreds of dispensaries. Council members will take up the issue once again Tuesday Jan. 19, 2010.

Reed Saxon/The Associated Press, file photo

Council members will take up the issue once again Tuesday, and they will be presented two drafts, both of which include capping the number of clinics at 70. The move would close most shops that don't comply with the new law.

The main difference between the two versions is the distance dispensaries should be from schools, parks and other public gathering spots.

Hundreds of dispensaries have opened in Los Angeles over the past couple of years despite a moratorium on new clinics.

While other California cities such as San Francisco, Oakland and West Hollywood have been able to regulate medical marijuana, Los Angeles city officials have fumbled with the ordinance for years and are trying to adopt language that jibes with state law.

Since 2005, the number of pot shops in Los Angeles has grown from a mere four to roughly 1,000. That's more than the number of Starbucks and public schools in the city.

The proliferation of clinics exploded this year — more than 600 over the past 10 months alone —despite a 2007 city moratorium prohibiting new medical marijuana dispensaries. The shop owners took advantage of a loophole known as a "hardship exemption" that allowed them to open while awaiting city approval.

However, more than 180 clinics qualified to remain open because they came before the ban was enacted. About 137 of those dispensaries still exist and would be allowed to remain open if they meet other requirements in the new law.

Medical marijuana advocates argue the council's inability to provide clear regulations has led to the growth of pot shops in Los Angeles. Residents also have grown frustrated with the bottleneck as they've seen dispensaries creep closer to their homes.

Even if the ordinance is signed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, dispensary owners are unsure they will be able to operate without being arrested. They have said they sell marijuana to their customers as a way to cover their expenses.

Both drafts of the ordinance say "no collective shall operate for profit." However, "cash and in-kind contributions" as well as "reasonable compensation" would be accepted.

Some law enforcement officials believe any cash trading hands is illegal under state law.

Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley said his office will target pot clinics that profit and sell to people who don't qualify for medical marijuana. Cooley said he believes state law authorizes the possession, use and cultivation of marijuana for medicinal purposes, but not the sale of the drug.

City Attorney Carmen Trutanich had also sought to ban sales at dispensaries, but the council ignored his advice.

Under the ordinance, dispensaries would have to close until they comply with the new local law. City officials would seek an injunction against those who don't.

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