By Nick Diamantides
Next Tuesday, November 10, the Long Beach City Council will consider an ordinance drafted by City Attorney Robert Shannon to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries in the city. Last Tuesday, November 3, the council received a recommendation from the council’s Economic Development and Finance Committee on what the city can do to regulate the distribution of marijuana that is used for medicinal purposes.
The committee has conducted two meetings on the issue to discuss reports from the city attorney, the city prosecutor, and other city staff. During the committee meetings, many members of the public also made comments on how medical marijuana facilities should be regulated.
“There have also been recent developments regarding medical marijuana, including announcements by the U.S Attorney General and the Los Angeles District Attorney,” said 8th District Councilwoman Rae Gabelich, who chairs the committee.
She was referring to the fact that, about three weeks ago, the Obama administration announced that it has instructed federal law enforcement agents and prosecutors to not arrest or prosecute users and distributors of medical marijuana who comply with state laws. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder also recently announced that the U.S. Justice Department would not be arresting people for the use and distribution of medical marijuana but would continue to prosecute those who sell it for other uses.
The problem for law enforcement officials is to develop a clear definition of what constitutes legitimate use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. About two weeks ago, Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley announced that his office would be prosecuting marijuana dispensary operators who are selling for profit and/or selling to people who don’t qualify for medical marijuana use.
“To all those who are operating illegally, our advice to them is to shut down voluntarily and they won’t be subject to prosecution,” Cooley said in a recent statement issued to the press.
Cooley’s comment is a response to the proliferation of marijuana dispensaries in the state. Currently, 14 states have passed laws allowing the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Among all those states, California has the largest proliferation of dispensaries– to the extent that many of them now advertise their products. The medical marijuana industry has burgeoned tremendously in the last three years. In 2005, only four marijuana dispensaries were known to exist in Los Angeles. Today, it is estimated that about 800 of them are operating in that city. Estimates for the number of dispensaries in Long Beach vary from 45 to 90.
In 1996, California voters approved Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act (CUA), which permitted the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes but required a doctor’s recommendation for such use. In 2003, the state legislature passed the Medical Marijuana Program Act to clarify and facilitate the implementation of the CUA. Even so, the definition of a dispensary that complies with state law is difficult to ascertain. Several court cases have dealt with that question and several more are pending. (An article published in the October 23 issue of the Signal Tribune focused on the complexities of regulating medical marijuana facilities.)
Gabelich noted that the Economic Development and Finance Committee has been working through the complexity of the issue, taking into account legal and public opinion in order to craft a recommendation to address the need to regulate marijuana dispensaries within city limits. Among the committee’s recommended regulations are: permitting only nine medical marijuana dispensaries in the city, strictly defining where they can be located, regulating their hours of operation, prohibiting the smoking of marijuana on the premises, and strictly defining the size and type of signs they can display on their buildings.
Shannon’s draft ordinance, which is expected to go to the council next Tuesday, will incorporate the committee’s recommendations. About three weeks ago, Shannon gave the council a 63-page memo regarding the research his office had done on marijuana dispensaries. The memo stressed that for-profit dispensaries are illegal under state law but not-for-profit cooperatives and collectives are permitted. Shannon also noted that the city has the legal authority to put zoning limits on the dispensaries. Gabelich’s committee has recommended that dispensaries not be allowed to operate within 1,000 feet of schools or other dispensaries, or in residential areas.