Weed Regulation Is Up to Cities — for Now

Drug warriors killed medical pot regulations in Sacramento this year, so cities will have to step up — if they hope to have any chance of curtailing federal raids.

On August 29, US Deputy Attorney General James Cole issued a historic memo urging states to enact tough medical and recreational pot regulations to end federal raids and prosecutions of lawful state businesses. Here in California — where a two-year-long federal crackdown has targeted some of the best and brightest canna-businesses in the nation — activists hoped lawmakers would enact such tough rules in the final days of the California legislative session for 2013.

But those hopes died September 13 when lobbyists for narcotics officers killed medi-pot regulation Assembly Bill 647. No change will be coming out of Sacramento for at least a year, meaning federal raids, forfeiture threats, and seizures will likely continue.

Although the state has failed to get its medical marijuana house in order, California cities continue to step into the regulatory vacuum with rules of their own. Chief among them: Los Angeles, arguably the largest medical cannabis city in the world. On September 10, the Los Angeles City Attorney began the process of cleaning up the city’s medical marijuana morass by enforcing Measure D — a voter-approved dispensary regulation scheme that passed overwhelmingly on May 21.

Measure D permits about 135 dispensaries in the City of Los Angeles, or about one club per 28,296 residents. That’s more clubs per capita than San Francisco (1 for every 40,645 residents) and Oakland (1 for every 49,477 residents), and about the same as Berkeley (1 for every 28,476 residents).

The lucky 135 or so clubs had to be open and registered with the Los Angeles City Clerk since 2007, as well as re-registered again in 2010 and 2011, to remain in business under Measure D. The clubs also have to abide by a list of rules, such as observing buffer zones from schools, parks, and residential areas; being closed from 8 p.m. to 10 a.m.; preventing on-site marijuana consumption; denying entry to minors; conducting background checks for management; and having no marijuana visible from their exteriors. The rules also prohibit dispensary chain stores.

Measure D also will result in the closure of about 280 dispensaries in Los Angeles that are operating illegally. In mid-September, the new LA City Attorney Mike Feuer filed criminal misdemeanor complaints against seven of those clubs for violating Measure D, said city attorney spokesman Rob Wilcox.

The misdemeanor complaints can lead to six months of jail time for dispensary operators, owners, and landlords, and fines of $2,500 per day. Wilcox said the city attorney is working to file “dozens more” complaints for violations of Measure D.

But rogue clubs have a long history of fighting legal wars of attrition in Los Angeles. The city tried and failed to regulate clubs in 2007, then tried a “gentle ban” in 2011. Upset patients gathered enough signatures to halt the gentle ban, and the effort set the stage for the election earlier this year that resulted in the passage of Measure D.

In addition to that measure, there were two others — Measures E and F — on the May ballot, and each offered different pot rules. The LA City Council — along with advocacy group Americans for Safe Access and the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770 — threw its support behind Measure D.

In many ways, Los Angeles’ house-cleaning follows the same historical trajectory as medical marijuana sanctuary cities like San Francisco, Oakland, Richmond, and Berkeley. All were hotbeds of marijuana law reform and saw an explosion of unregulated collectives distributing marijuana in storefronts by 2004. But the cities crafted regulations that permitted a select group of qualified outlets, while shutting down any rogue ones.

For the most part, the regulations have worked. San Francisco has permitted about two dozen stores, even in the face of federal saber-rattling and interference. Oakland has permitted up to eight dispensaries — with four long-standing outlets and four new ones scheduled to come online this year. Richmond and Berkeley each have a handful of clubs and far fewer issues than before local regulations went into effect.

“I realize that any sort of enforcement is bad news for somebody,” said American for Safe Access’ Don Duncan. “But I do feel like we’ve turned a corner in Los Angeles from that perception of the Wild West to the perception that we’re getting things in order. I think there is much more work to be done and I think we’re on the right path,” he said. “We have to do it.”

The outlook, however, is less sunny in the rest of Southern California — where dispensary bans blanket much of the region. In San Diego, a local crackdown is restarting since medical marijuana patients lost the protection of City Hall after Mayor Bob Filner, a weed ally, left under a cloud of sexual harassment charges this summer.

And not all medical pot advocates in Los Angeles are happy about the cleanup efforts. Los Angeles attorney Stewart Richlin represents one club charged with a Measure D misdemeanor. He said very few clubs have willingly closed since Measure D passed. His group is also challenging Measure D in a lawsuit filed last week. He contends that Measure D is arbitrary and unfair to new clubs. He also argues that it violates the constitution’s due-process and equal-protection clauses. “It picks and chooses winners and losers,” he said. “It’s un-American.”

If a judge accepts Richlin’s motion to block Measure D, the misdemeanor complaints will fall apart, he said.

Los Angeles cannot follow the same regulatory path established in the Bay Area, he said, because “Los Angeles is sprawling in nature. We believe that the free market is the thing that should determine where collectives should be.”


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