By Vince Echavaria
The Santa Monica City Council is taking steps to decide if medical marijuana dispensaries will finally have a place within the city borders.
The council voted 4-3 Aug. 13 to direct staff to draft proposed regulations for establishing a limited number of medical marijuana dispensaries in certain areas of the city, which would be considered as part of the updated zoning code late this year.
Additionally, the council unanimously approved extending a moratorium on licenses or permits for dispensaries for up to a year, allowing city staff time to draft the regulations. The moratorium had been extended for more than 10 months last year after the city had received a number of inquiries about opening dispensaries and related facilities for the medicinal drug.
Councilman Kevin McKeown said the moratorium was intended to give the city a mechanism for controlling the possible operations until an ordinance was in place.
“Our intent here has always been to avoid the proliferation of dispensaries before we have a code in place to regulate and control them,” he said.
If the city were to adopt regulations for the businesses by early next year, then the council could vote to end the moratorium in place, City Attorney Marsha Moutrie said.
In recent years, the number of medical marijuana businesses operating in Los Angeles had skyrocketed and that city’s governing body went through several revisions of its ordinance to regulate them. Earlier this year, Los Angeles voters passed Proposition D to allow a limited number of dispensaries to continue operating throughout the city, including in Venice.
While dispensary operations can be authorized statewide, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling in May upholding the rights of cities to regulate or ban medical marijuana uses.
Referring to the proliferation that has occurred in other cities, McKeown said officials have seen what happens when the regulations are handled “thoughtlessly.” “I want to do this right and there are ways to do it right,” said McKeown, who has supported establishing a limited number of dispensaries in specific parts of the city.
McKeown noted that there are responsible people in the community who have received medical benefits from the drug and have expressed difficulty in needing to drive out of town in order to access the medicine.
“We’re not talking about irresponsible people here,” said McKeown, adding that former Los Angeles Councilman Bill Rosendahl has publicly spoken about the benefits he has received while using medical marijuana during his battle with cancer.
Earlier this year, the city held a community meeting addressing the prospect of having dispensaries in Santa Monica, where many attendees agreed that the businesses should be allowed to operate under certain regulations. Several speakers voiced concerns with having to travel to other communities to acquire the medicinal drug.
Those comments were echoed by some speakers at the Aug. 13 meeting.
“The idea that you should have to go out of town to get medicine that’s legal under state law is absolutely preposterous,” said Ocean Park resident Ian James, who believes the city should have the least amount of regulations possible.
Jeff Dowd, who said he has received the medical benefits of the drug, asked, “What’s the logic of not having the medical marijuana here?”
Advocating for establishing some dispensaries in the city, resident Susan O’Leary said the operations create jobs, free up time for police and the city can collect the sales tax. While the drug is not accepted under federal law, it’s accepted by society, including patients who have received relief from a variety of medical symptoms, she told the council.
The issue is expected to be a contentious debate when it comes before members of the council. Councilman Bob Holbrook said he would not support including regulations as part of the new zoning ordinance, noting that medical marijuana is available close to the city limits and pharmacies deliver the drug to users who are unable to travel.
“I think it’s a readily available substance and it’s been problematic in other cities. I don’t think we need to have local marijuana shops because I think it would be problematic in the city,” Holbrook said.
Councilman Ted Winterer said while he doesn’t want to see the proliferation that has existed in areas such as Venice, he supports finding a mechanism to allow a limited number of regulated businesses that would address any public safety concerns.