Long Beach still hasn’t figured out just how to effectively regulate the medical marijuana dispensaries, but city officials are not giving up on the daunting task, in spite of concerns expressed by the police chief– and in spite of a number of advocates of medical marijuana who don’t like the idea of keeping dispensaries in industrial zones. The Council has also laid the groundwork to put a measure on the April 2014 ballot that would establish a city tax on marijuana dispensaries.
Last week at its Dec. 17 meeting, the Long Beach City Council provided additional direction to the City’s Planning Commission in order for the commission to develop recommendations for a zoning ordinance. (For the specific details of the Council’s directions, see accompanying box).
The Planning Commission is anticipated to discuss the medical-marijuana issue in February. Once the commission completes a study and finalizes its recommendations for a draft ordinance, it is expected to report back to the Council within 60 days.
Development Services Director Amy Bodek initially estimated that the commission would need about six months to return to the Council with its recommendations for an ordinance because the commission is not familiar at all with any of the medical marijuana issues and needed to conduct a study session.
“The public has been ready, so they’re not going to hold this up,” said 2nd District Councilmember Suja Lowenthal. She added that there is no need for a commission to conduct a study session, arguing there will be opportunities for the public to comment on the issue and that the commission is already familiar with land-use zoning issues.
“None of us want to subvert the Planning Commission process,” Lowenthal said, acknowledging that the Council has many priorities for planning staff. She criticized the six-month timetable. “This has been around for five years,” she said. “This is a priority.”
More than three years ago, the Council approved an ordinance that allowed and regulated a limited number of collectives and dispensaries to operate in Long Beach. The ordinance was updated in 2011 and, in that same year, city officials even conducted a lottery that was intended to pick which dispensaries would qualify for a permit. No permits, however, were ever issued. Moreover, the Council later enacted a ban on dispensaries after the California Court of Appeals ruled that parts of the previous ordinance conflicted with federal law.
Although the outline of recommended parameters for a new ordinance won the full support of the Council, not everyone embraced the possibility of another marijuana-dispensary ordinance.
Police Chief Jim McDonnell urged against allowing medical-marijuana dispensaries to operate in the city, warning that city resources have been “ill-equipped” and that there has been a negative impact on the quality of life in the city. He said, despite the current ban, six dispensaries are still operating in the city and the department has been spending a vast number of hours dealing with the issues.
“Whatever possible good you believe that [the City] would be doing for a small segment of the population would drastically be outweighed by the negative impact on the greater community and a significant strain on already limited city-staffing resources,” McDonnell told the Council last week. He further explained that the state law called the Compassionate Use Act already provides for caregivers to grow and share marijuana for medical purposes.
“Allowing dispensaries is not the answer to help those who are ill,” McDonnell concluded.
Assistant City Attorney Michael Mais also reminded the Council that his office is also currently still dealing with 18 active medical-marijuana cases. He indicated that there may be other legal challenges ahead for the City even after city officials finish deliberating over the details of a new ordinance. Mais explained that, in any scenario, there will be dispensaries that will be excluded from legally operating in the city.
“The people who are excluded, sue,” he said.
Eighth District Councilmember Al Austin acknowledged that there a number of other priorities in addition to staff concerns, including the desire to protect neighborhoods and business corridors and the desire to be fair to those collectives and dispensaries who have cooperated with the City.
“I think this Council is really struggling to… balance all of the concerns that we hear,” Austin said.
The Council’s push to ask for a new ordinance has already drawn some criticism from marijuana advocates, especially after the Council requested that the Commission consider limiting dispensaries to industrial areas in the city.
“This prohibitionist Council will never give us a fair ordinance. I’m convinced of that,” said 7th-District resident David Zink before the Council. “Some of you are empathetic…it is ridiculous to take them [the dispensaries] away from the neighborhoods because patients live in neighborhoods. They don’t live in industrial zones.”
Adam Hijazi of the advocacy group called the Long Beach Collective Association said in an interview that he was happy that the Council was moving in a direction to allow “safe access” to medical marijuana, but he also warned against limiting dispensaries to industrial areas.
“Disabled people are going to have a hard time getting [there], and they shouldn’t be treated as if they are substandard,” Hijazi said, explaining that, if disabled patients are forced to go to industrial areas, they could be going to areas that are empty or dangerous, especially at night.
The Council also voted 7-1 to direct the City Attorney to prepare documents to put on the April, 2014 ballot a proposed measure for a city tax on medical-marijuana businesses. The proposed tax must coincide with whether there will actually be a marijuana-dispensary ordinance in effect. The Council also asked for the measure to include the ability to create “cost recovery” fees associated with regulating the dispensaries.
The State Board of Equalization is already taxing medical marijuana at 9 percent. The proposed ballot measure would allow the City to tax medical-marijuana dispensaries an amount in addition to the 9 percent. The staff confirmed last week that it recommended that the City should impose a 6-percent tax.
At 4th District Councilmember Patrick O’Donnell’s recommendation, the Council also requested that the proposed measure include language that gives the Council flexibility to adjust the tax rate.
Fifth District Councilmember Gerrie Schipske opposed a city tax on medical marijuana.
“I think it’s absolutely cruel,” she said of the possibility that medical-marijuana patients might pay a 15-percent tax. “If you really do believe this is medication and that patients need it, then they’re going to be penalized.”
Schipske was the lone vote against the recommendation for the ballot measure. The Council passed the recommendation in a vote of 7-1. Sixth District Councilmember Dee Andrews was not present for the vote.