The Los Angeles City Council has unanimously approved a new ordinance that will ban all medical marijuana dispensaries across the city but allow small groups of patients to grow the plant. Promoters at the Green Doctors in Venice (above), which approves medical pot cards, are among opponents of a total ban on the operations. Photo by Jorge M. Vargas Jr.

Hundreds of medical marijuana dispensaries operating throughout Los Angeles will be ordered closed under a new ordinance approved by the City Council.

The council voted unanimously July 24 to pass the law that will ban medical pot dispensaries in the city but will allow qualified patients and their primary caregivers in groups of three or less to grow the plant for medicinal purposes.

The council additionally requested city staff to explore a separate ordinance that would enable a number of dispensaries and collectives, which opened prior to a moratorium in 2007, to remain in operation. Opponents to what some called a “gentle ban” have argued that many patients would have difficulty trying to grow the plant themselves and others lack access to licensed caregivers.

Supporters have stressed that the number of marijuana dispensaries operating across the city has skyrocketed into the several hundreds in the last several years, some close to schools, and a ban is needed until a decision is made by the state Supreme Court on how to regulate the businesses. Many of the dispensaries have been concentrated on the Westside.

“Due to the massive proliferation of illegal dispensaries throughout the city, I strongly believe a gentle ban should be part of any ordinance the city proposes until the California Supreme Court provides further guidance to cities,” said Councilman Jose Huizar, who introduced the motion.

Proponents noted that some neighborhoods have complained about disruption and public safety issues related to the medicinal drug businesses. Councilman Mitchell Englander has said that illegal pot shops have “wreaked havoc on communities and have taken advantage not only of patients but the spirit of the law as well.”

A previous law regulating dispensaries was enacted in 2010, limiting the businesses to at least 1,000 feet from schools, parks, religious institutions and other sensitive areas, as well as from other collectives. The regulations have been the subject of dozens of lawsuits filed by dispensary operators and supporters.

The new ordinance comes after the state’s Second District Court of Appeal upheld the city’s 2010 law and found that the city can limit the collectives to those that registered under the 2007 moratorium, which includes more than 100.

“State law allows access to medical marijuana for qualified patients and their primary caregivers to alleviate serious health concerns,” City Attorney Carmen Trutanich said in a statement after the ruling. “The courts, however, continue to remind us that cities are charged with appropriately regulating this access, to prevent marijuana sales, which remain illegal under both state and federal law, and to protect both patients and our neighborhoods.”

Patients and other medical marijuana activists denounced the council’s ban on pot collectives, saying it was passed despite thousands of letters calling for “sensible regulations,” and some have vowed to seek a voter referendum to reverse the law.

“This is an outrage that the City Council would think a reasonable solution to the distribution of medical marijuana would be to simply outlaw it altogether,” said Don Duncan, California director with Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group.

“The tens of thousands of patients harmed by this vote will not take it sitting down. We will campaign forcefully to overturn this poor decision by the council.”

Whitney Landau, a manager of The Farmacy collective on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice, said she was not surprised that opponents of the ban who want to ensure there is adequate access for patients that rely on the drug would pursue a referendum. The Farmacy is expected to be exempt from the ban as one of the businesses that registered prior to the moratorium, she said.

“If they leave it up to us I think they will find that they’re in for a fight,” said Landau, adding that she believes supporters would have no problem gathering the required number of signatures.

Some patient advocates have taken issue with the city’s characterization of the ban that would allow groups of less than four to cultivate the drug.

“The city is whitewashing their actions by calling this a ‘gentle ban,’ when in reality it offers patients nothing more than what’s already legal under state law, and denies patients the real need to safely and legally obtain their medication,” Duncan said.

In a letter to the council, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck expressed support for an outright ban, noting that between 800 and 1,000 dispensaries have opened around the city, many near schools and places of worship. Due to the presence of drugs and large sums of money, dispensaries have been the location of numerous crimes, and allowing even a limited number to stay open could create problems, Beck wrote.

“Unauthorized dispensaries will continue to open, close, move and re-open around the city,” he said. “A partial ban will not solve, and may concentrate, the crime and quality of life problems outlined previously.”

Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents Westside communities such as Venice and Mar Vista and was not present for the July 24 vote, said it has been “out of control” with the proliferation of pot shops but he supports the use of medical marijuana and opposes a total ban on dispensaries. Rosendahl, who said he would have voted against the ordinance, is in favor of a plan that allows the pre-moratorium businesses to stay open and keeps them away from sensitive locations.

“The only way we can effectively deal with these operations is to respect those that have been grandfathered in to the process, that have located themselves in an area that does not put them into direct contact with parks or kids, and that they’re also taxed,” Rosendahl told his colleagues. “Those who have one form or another of a disease and find that marijuana is something that helps should be given the opportunity to get the marijuana.”

The councilman said patients who need to use the drug should be able to safely access it and allowing some of the businesses to operate will help keep medical marijuana away from the “back alleys.”

Some local medical pot advocates said they are not opposed to regulating the high number of shops but are concerned that banning the businesses would make it more of a challenge for ill patients to obtain the medication.

“(Regulation) wouldn’t be the worst thing; we’d still have plenty of places to go for it. But we voted for it so we should still be allowed to have it,” said a promoter at the Green Doctors on the Venice Boardwalk, which gives approval for medicinal pot cards.

Landau of the Venice Farmacy is also not against regulating the operations but wants to ensure that patients in need would not have trouble receiving the drug.

“For certain patients it would be a struggle for them to grow it themselves and they’d be forced to buy it on the street,” she said of the “gentle ban.”

“People have adjusted their lifestyle to this and it’s become a convenience to them. I think it would be tragic to take that away.” ¤