The Los Angeles City Council will decide Tuesday whether to repeal its ban on storefront medical marijuana dispensaries or to have voters decide whether to squash the law or let it survive.
The City Council in July banned all storefront medical marijuana dispensaries, but allowed patients and licensed caregivers to grow their own cannabis. The so-called "gentle ban" ordinance also allowed three or fewer parties to collectively grow pot.
Estimates by the city put the number of dispensaries in the city at close to 1,000. Medical cannabis supporters bashed the law, saying high-quality marijuana is difficult to grow and the gentle ban would deny cancer, AIDS and other chronically ill patients one of the only medicines that provides relief from painful medical treatments.
The Committee to Protect Patients and Neighborhoods, a coalition of medical marijuana advocacy groups -- Americans for Safe Access, the Greater Los Angeles Collective Alliance and the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770 -- gathered 49,021 signatures to ask voters to overturn the law. The tally was well over the 27,425 signatures needed to qualify the measure, and the referendum was certified by the City Clerk last month.
"We have always been seeking a fair compromise to resolve this complicated issue," said Rick Icaza, president of UFCW Local 770, which represents about 500 workers at 50 marijuana dispensaries.
"We would like to see a law that regulates and restricts medical cannabis dispensaries, but preserves safe access for patients, and good union jobs for dispensary employees."
Councilman Jose Huizar said "storefront medical marijuana dispensaries are not contemplated under state law and are therefore illegal" and "nothing the City Council will do tomorrow or in the future will change that."
"At this point, I'm more concerned with enforcement on illegal, for- profit dispensaries, which the federal government is currently engaged in," Huizar said.
"While I support the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, the state needs to create a better way of providing access for seriously ill patients while removing the scores of profiteers and recreational users who currently dominate the market."
The clerk's verification of the signatures forced three options in front of the council. The panel must decide whether to repeal the ordinance, as favored by the petitioners, put the referendum on the March 5 citywide election ballot, or call for a special election.
A special election would cost taxpayers an estimated $4 million, according to the city clerk, and is likely to be the unpopular option.
Also tomorrow, the council will vote on a resolution sponsored by City Council President Herb Wesson that asks state lawmakers to fix state law to give municipalities clear guidelines on how to regulate the distribution of medical marijuana.
The existing law "fails to respond to fundamental issues and ... has been inappropriately used as a legal shield to stymie local governments from solving many resulting problems," according to Wesson's measure.
Council members are expected to discuss options to replace the gentle ban if they decide not to repeal the ordinance, but voters do.