Activists garner 50,000 signatures they hope will lead to either repeal of ordinance or placing it before voters in the next municipal election on March 5.

by Arin Mikailian,
August 30th, 2012

An ordinance that would ban marijuana dispensaries from operating in Los Angeles could be put on hold and possibly left to voters to decide, if a petition on its way to the city clerk is ruled valid.

The petition, comprised of about 50,000 signatures, was submitted to the Los Angeles City Clerk’s Office Thursday and calls for a referendum next March on the new ordinance banning storefront dispensaries effective Sept. 6. But the petition’s immediate effect would be to prevent the ordinance from even going into effect.

Activists who sponsored the petition drive formally announced their plans at a Wednesday morning press conference at the Universal Sheraton in Universal City.

The City Council voted last month to ban the dispensaries, citing conflicting court opinions about whether the city can legally regulate cannabis collectives. While banning storefront dispensaries, the city will allow licensed patients or caregivers to grow and transport their own medical marijuana, under the ordinance.

After the vote, the City Attorney’s Office sent letters to 1,046 suspected dispensary locations warning them to shut down by Sept. 6 or face court action and a $2,500 fine for every day they remain open past the deadline. Medical marijuana supporters quickly mounted a signature-gathering effort in hopes of forcing a referendum on the issue.

A minimum of 27,425 signatures is required to get the issue on the ballot, according to petition-drive organizers, who say they’ve collected around twice that many. Once the petition is submitted, the City Clerk’s office will verify the signatures against voter registration information.

If the petition is determined to pass muster, the City Council would have 20 days to either repeal the ordinance or leave the decision up to voters in next year’s municipal election on March 5, said Kimberly Briggs, media specialist with the city clerk’s election divsion.

“Legally, we have 15 days to verify the signatures on the petition,” Briggs said.

Councilman Jose Huizar, who champions the ban, said the submission of
signatures does not necessarily mean storefront medical marijuana shops will be spared legal action, even though the ordinance that provides for the storefront ban would be put on hold.

According to Huizar, filing petition signatures means the city’s “Sunset Clause” will kick in, “which outlaws storefront dispensaries and only allows, per state law, for a qualified patient or their caregiver to grow their own or collectives consisting of three or fewer qualified patients or their caregivers.”

Officials in the office of City Attorney Carmen Trutanich have advanced similar opinions about the city’s options, but medical marijuana advocates disagree.

“State law is clear — selling medical marijuana for profit is illegal,” Huizar said. The referendum effort “does not change that and doesn’t protect dispensary owners from prosecution if they engage in illegal activity.”

If placed on the ballot next March, the referendum on the ban will take place at the same time as Angelenos elect a new mayor. Medical marijuana activists say, however, that they hope the Council revisits the idea of a total ban, in which case no referendum will be necessary.

“We want a strict regulatory system in place to ensure safe access for patients and a nuisance-free process for neighborhoods,” referendum proponent Norma Schaffer said. “This one-size-fits-all ban not only hurts patients, but it eliminates dispensaries playing by the rules while doing little to shut down rogue dispensaries.

“We need good policy, not knee-jerk bans that make the problem worse,” she said. “We’re confident the voters of Los Angeles will agree with us.”

A number of pro-medical marijuana organizations and medical marijuana users with various illnesses gathered at the Universal Sheraton on Wednedsay to announce the intention of seeking a referendum.

Rick Icaza, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770, which represents dispensary workers from about 40 storefronts, spoke in favor of drafting a more lenient ordinance.

“This referendum will give the city an opportunity to have a real discussion about compassionate use, one outside the narrow halls of politics and politicians,” he said. “We disagree that the best way to respond to the neighborhood concerns with certain dispensaries was to ban them all outright. We are seeking a compromise solution.”

One of the patients to speak was Linda Leek, who said she has used marijuana for four years to help her deal with thyroid myalgia. She said the few exceptions outlined in the new ordinance would make it harder to obtain cannabis.

Under the new policy, primary caregivers to grow and transport medical marijuana. In addition, two or three patients would be able to collectively grow and share medical marijuana in their homes, but not storefronts.

“I can’t grow it on my own,” Leek said. “I can’t afford to grow it on my own. I would not know the knowledge to grow it on my own.”

Don Duncan, director of Americans for Safe Access, said he views regulation as the best alternative to banning medical marijuana dispensaries.

He said one approach would be to carefully plan the location of such storefronts so that they are not allowed to operate near churches, schools and parks.

Duncan said if better regulation means shutting down some marijuana shops to keep others open at more appropriate locations, it would be worth it.

“We know when we call for regulations that not everyone is going to meet the standard and be able to operate under those regulations,” he said. “And that may be an acceptable outcome so long as we preserve some access for patients.”

On Aug. 17, a medical marijuana trade group called the Patient Care Alliance filed a lawsuit in hopes of blocking the marijuana ban, calling it a “reckless, baseless and heartless act of denial of necessary medical services.”

One of the champions of the ban, Councilman Jose Huizar, said after the council’s vote in July that the city’s action still provides safe access to marijuana for patients who need it, but also puts the city on solid legal footing and alleviates quality-of-life issues that constituents complain about.

Nirvana Auto Flowering Marijuana Seeds

“Relief is coming in the form of having a more focused and intense crackdown on these dispensaries that cause problems in our neighborhoods,” Huizar said.

Councilman Paul Koretz, an ally of the medical marijuana community, advocates allowing 100 or so of the city’s oldest dispensaries to remain open.