[author: Josh Crank]
After years of experimenting with regulations and ordinances, the Los Angeles City Council announced its harshest action yet in its struggle with the city’s medical marijuana industry, banning all dispensaries within city limits. Councilmembers voted to prohibit the pot shops by a count of 13-1 following hours of debate, and the lone dissenting councilman ultimately changed his vote in order to hurry the measure to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s desk.
Villaraigosa, who supports the ban, has until August 6 to sign it into law. The ban will go into effect 30 days from when it is signed.
It will affect all 762 of the registered medical marijuana dispensaries in the city, as well as an unknown number of unregistered dispensaries. Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Krekorian estimates the actual number of dispensaries to be around 1,000.
“This is an outrage that the city council would think a reasonable solution to the distribution of medical marijuana would be to simply outlaw it altogether,” said Don Duncan, California Director of Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy organization. Duncan pledged a campaign to block the ban through a ballot referendum.
In order to qualify such a referendum for the ballot, organizers will need to collect nearly 28,000 valid signatures. Kris Hermes, Media Specialist for Americans for Safe Access, expressed hope that the city would wait for a vote before shutting down local dispensaries.
“It would be extremely imprudent for the city to go ahead and enforce the ban after the referendum has been filed,” Hermes said. “When we qualify for the ballot, the city will either have to rescind the ban right then and there, or just wait until it’s put up for a vote and let the people decide.”
A Divided Community
Leading up to the city council’s vote, councilmembers heard from proponents of the ban, including one woman who said that her children walk through clouds of marijuana smoke in front of their house and in their neighborhood. Ban supporters argued that dispensaries attract crime, send a bad message to children and are too numerous in some neighborhoods.
Medical marijuana patients and advocates also spoke out forcefully, arguing that a blanket ban on dispensaries will deny sick people access to essential medicine. A patient with cerebral palsy noted that home cultivation of medical-grade marijuana is not only prohibitively expensive for the average person, it is also impractical for patients with physical impairments. After the ban passed, some in the crowd angrily shouted profanities at the councilmembers.
Councilman Jose Huizar described the measure as a “gentle ban,” a label to which Duncan took exception.
“The city is whitewashing their actions by calling this a ‘gentle ban,’ when in reality it offers patients nothing more than what’s already legal under state law, and denies patients the real need to safely and legally obtain their medication,” he said.
Special Assistant City Attorney Jane Usher told MSNBC that she expects “tremendous voluntary cooperation” from local dispensaries, but she also suggests the possibility that some dispensaries could fly under the city’s radar by avoiding the ire of their neighbors.
“The harder cases, we’ll work with LAPD,” Usher said. “We’ll be complaint driven. We’ll only pursue those dispensaries that are disrupting their neighborhoods.”
Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck
The ban has the support of Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, who says that it’s needed to combat “large, for-profit businesses that operate outside what we think is state law, and not only cause a nuisance to the community but cause a public danger because of a very toxic mixture of high-value narcotics and a lot of cash.”
It’s true that many dispensaries keep lots of cash on hand, but that’s often because banks are afraid to do business with them. A June 2011 memo from Deputy Attorney General James Cole states that “those who engage in transactions involving the proceeds of [cultivating, selling or distributing marijuana] may also be in violation of federal money laundering statutes and other federal financial laws,” regardless of state law.
Hermes says that while there’s no question the ban is bad news for medical marijuana patients in Los Angeles, it may ultimately be bad news for the local law enforcers who support it.
“I’d like to know what Chief of Police Charlie Beck thinks about his job being complicated by the growth in illicit drug sales and use that will inevitably occur as a result of this decision,” he said.