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In Los Angeles, advocates push dueling medical marijuana measures

Reed Saxon / AP file

"Budista" Angela Nagel assists a client at the Starbudz medical marijuana dispensary in the North Hollywood district of Los Angeles on May 5, 2010.

In Los Angeles, where pot dispensaries have proliferated despite city lawmakers' efforts to regulate or ban them, advocates for medical marijuana have taken the initiative to rein them in — with two groups putting forward rival ballot initiatives to manage the budding industry.

Los Angeles City Council in October reversed a ban on the pot shops — which they had passed less than three months earlier after activists mounted lawsuits and gathered tens of thousands of signatures opposing it. The lawmakers have been slow to draft alternative plans for the pot industry so medical marijuana advocates have stepped in.


An initiative that qualified for the ballot on Friday, after gathering tens of thousands of signatures, proposes that all comers are allowed to enter the business of selling medical cannabis — but only if they pass a background check and meet strict operating and zoning requirements. The measure would also hike taxes on medical marijuana sales by 20 percent to cover the cost to the city for regulation.

 


The current tax is $50 per $1,000 of gross receipts, and the increase would bump it up to $60 per $1,000 of gross receipts.

That measure is pitted against a medical marijuana initiative that qualified for the ballot just two days earlier — one that would force all the city's marijuana dispensaries to close down except about 100 that were set up before Sept. 2007, when the city imposed a moratorium on new shops.

In the face of vociferous opposition, the city council did not enforce the moratorium, instead letting it expire. The number of cannabis shops soared to an estimated 700 to 1,000 in 2012. They range in size from tiny mom-and-pop shops to large multi-million dollar businesses, the Los Angeles Times reported. Police say some are squeaky-clean outlets providing relief to desperately ill patients, while others are magnets for crime with a toxic mix of cash and narcotics, with a negative impact on neighborhoods.

Regulating medical marijuana has been complicated by lawsuits and the push-pull between federal and state laws.

Under California law it is legal to obtain medical marijuana and the court has ruled it is legal for the medical dispensaries to sell it.  But under federal law marijuana is a controlled substance, illegal to possess and sell. If California issues licenses to pot sellers, even if it's in an effort to limit their numbers, it may be in violation of federal law.

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David Welch is a Los Angeles attorney advocating for Angelenos for Safe Access, which gathered more than 73,000 petition signatures to get their initiative qualified for the ballot on Friday. He says that the proposed zoning — designed to keep pot sales at a specified distance from schools, parks, churches, substance abuse facilities and other designated sites — would naturally limit the number of dispensaries to about 150. The proposal also calls for background checks for dispensary operators, prescribed operating hours and higher taxes.

"Currently there is no regulation so that’s why there is proliferation. Our goal is to have good operators stay in business," said Welch. "It would put out 70-85 percent of the dispensaries operating out of business."

This ballot measure, "Regulation of Medical Marijuana for Safe Neighborhoods and Safe Access" is backed by many of the dispensaries that have opened since the 2007 moratorium.

The competing initiative, called the "Medical Marijuana Collectives Initiative Ordinance" would grandfather in about 100 medical marijuana dispensaries set up prior to the 2007 moratorium, and bar all others. It would also add restrictions on hours of operation and location.

Los Angeles residents will have a chance to vote on the proposals in municipal elections in May, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The new ballot drives have "forced our hand," City Councilman Paul Koretz  told the Times.

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