The Los Angeles City Council approved revisions to its medical marijuana ordinance on Jan. 21 that will create a lottery to determine how many dispensaries will be issued permits to remain open for business.
The decision is the latest twist in the saga involving the city’s medical marijuana ordinance, which went into effect last June but required some changes after a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled in December that some provisions were not legal. One of the provisions in question was a requirement that only dispensaries that were in business before a moratorium went into effect in 2007 would be allowed to reapply. Judge Anthony Mohr directed the council to choose a specific cut-off date, and the council set Sept. 14, 2007 —when the moratorium took effect — as the deadline. Only dispensaries that were open before that date, have filed for a permit and meet all the conditions will be included in the lottery.
The city council capped the total number of dispensaries to be allowed in the city at 100.
The lottery — which will likely be held in March after all of the applications can be reviewed — was created to level the playing field for the dispensaries and address the judge’s ruling, according to Jane Usher, special assistant city attorney with the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office. No new dispensaries are being allowed to apply, and the lottery will only affect those already under consideration.
Usher said the cap of 100 does not necessarily mean that 100 dispensaries will be approved. The city clerk’s office is currently reviewing the applications, and only dispensaries that can prove they were open prior to Sept. 14, 2007 and have not had a change of ownership will be considered.
“There are only going to be one hundred registrants allowed, but we are prepared for less than one hundred to qualify. We have no way of knowing how many,” Usher added.
Los Angeles City Councilmember Ed Reyes, 1st District, said he is confident that the changes will make the ordinance stronger. He added that it has been a balancing act trying to ensure there is access to medical marijuana for people who legitimately need it, and provide protections for the community against illegal dispensaries.
“I see the ordinance as a living document that continues to evolve over time. We are challenged by the fact that we have shifting sands, and we are trying to stay on target with what the judge said is legal,” Reyes said. “We need to protect the city from illegal places opening up, and we will continue to do that.”
Mohr had initially given the city until Jan. 7 to come up with the changes, or his injunction against some parts of the ordinance would take effect. The city’s ordinance has remained in effect throughout the entire period.
On Jan. 7, Mohr changed his ruling and required the dispensaries to post a $350,000 bond within 10 days for his injunction to go into effect. The bond was not posted, and the judge set a hearing for today to consider a motion by attorneys for the dispensaries to extend the period of time for them to post the bond.
Usher said it likely will not matter now whether the bond is posted because the city council’s changes last week have already addressed the judge’s December ruling. Mohr will hold a hearing at a future date to determine whether the council’s recent changes satisfy the requirements.
While the ordinance has been under consideration, more dispensaries have been illegally opening. Paul Lerner, co-founder of the Melrose Action Neighborhood Watch, said seven are now operating on Melrose Avenue between Fairfax and Highland Avenues. Prior to the ordinance taking effect last June, there were approximately 15 in that area, but most closed and the number dwindled to five. Three of the five were operating legally and the others were applying for permits. At least one, La Luna Caregivers, has reopened while the registration process has been ongoing, and another dispensary, Buds on Melrose, allegedly never closed, according to Lerner.
Usher said the City Attorney’s Office is waiting for a final decision by the judge, and the lottery to take effect, before going after illegal dispensaries. She added, however, that are operating “at their own risk”. The dispensary owners, and the building owners who allow them to operate, could face fines of up to $2,500 per day that they remain open illegally. Usher said the fines would be retroactive to when the dispensaries opened, which could bring the fines to hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars.
“Those dispensaries that are staying open know whether they are legal or not, and with the violations, the penalties start the day you commenced your violation. For someone to stay open right now is at their own risk and peril,” Usher said. “When the original ordinance took effect in June, we had widespread voluntary closure, and we are hoping for voluntary closures again when the new changes take effect. Once the lottery is held we will move forward on the closures, because that is when we will know who qualified.”
Reyes acknowledged that the judge’s ruling has been a setback for enforcement against illegal dispensaries, but said once the lottery is held, there will be swift action.
“By them opening up again, it speaks to the fact that they know we don’t have the resources to enforce this as quickly as we would like,” Reyes said. “But when we get them we will enforce the law, and that is the chance that they (dispensaries) are taking.”