L.A. City Council President Wants to Legalize Pot Shops, Because They're Actually Not Legal

Marijuana at the MadMen dispensary in West Hollywood
Marijuana at the MadMen dispensary in West Hollywood
Gustavo Turner/L.A. Weekly

UPDATE at 12:22 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2016: The City Council voted to move forward with the measure. See details at the bottom. First posted at 12:24 p.m. Monday, Oct. 31, 2016.

Pot shops in the city of Los Angeles technically are illegal. In 2013 voters approved a look-the-other-way law, Proposition D, which grants "limited legal immunity" to 135 or fewer dispensaries in L.A. that have kept up with certain regulations since 2007.

Those collectives, however, could be outlawed on Jan. 1, 2018, when a package of state cannabis bills takes effect. The Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act (MCRSA, formerly known as MMRSA) requires state and city licenses for pot retailers. But under Proposition D, City Hall doesn't license dispensaries.

There have been multiple efforts to fix this. State Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer authored a bill, AB 2385, that would have provided Los Angeles an exemption to the licensing rule. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it. At the same time, a number of dispensary groups have been agitating for changes to Proposition D that would allow licensing, delivery services and legal recognition for suppliers. One of those groups, United Cannabis Business Alliance (UCBA), has enough valid voter signatures to qualify for the March ballot its proposal to license the 135 dispensaries. The initiative also would allow the city to expand that number. And it would open the door to delivery by licensed brick-and-mortar shops.

Proposition 64, which would legalize recreational marijuana if it's passed by voters Nov. 8, would allow cities to continue to write the rules for local weed retailers. L.A. could ban pot businesses, or it could license them.

Meanwhile, City Council president Herb Wesson has been working on his own solution. On Tuesday the council will consider whether to put his proposed regulations before voters in March, possibly pitting the politicians' measure against that of some pot businesses. Wesson wants voters to approve a measure, the Cannabis Enforcement, Taxation and Regulation Act, which would repeal Proposition D on July 31, 2018, and would leave regulation specifics, including licensing, to the City Council, according to a list of recommendations to the body.

Representatives of Wesson's office have previously said he's open to expanding the number of city-recognized shops beyond 135 and that he would consider legalizing delivery services. The council president also wants to license and tax other pot businesses to be recognized by the state, such as cultivators and producers.

"The city of Los Angeles should explore financial opportunities associated with the recreational use, cultivation, distribution, manufacturing, processing and testing of marijuana," according to an earlier Wesson motion on the matter.

The ballot proposal would tax medical dispensaries at 5 percent. Wesson's measure seeks to tax recreational sellers at 10 percent if Proposition 64, which would legalize recreational marijuana for those 21 and older, passes on Nov. 8. It's expected that many medical shops will go recreational if 64 is successful, and shops don't necessarily have to pass those tax costs on to customers. Wesson's measure alo would levy $20,000 fines against unlicensed shops after Proposition D is repealed — if it's repealed.

"The recommended council-sponsored initiative organizes a fair tax structure for the city to regulate the industry while providing a mechanism to replace Proposition D with comprehensive policy solutions," Vanessa Rodriguez, Wesson's spokeswoman, said in an email.

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The recommendations on the table, however, would ask the voters to trust the City Council to not let pot shops become outlaws on Jan. 1, 2018. That's a big ask. In the late '00s, many neighborhoods were fed up with pot shops — some argued there were more dispensaries than Starbucks locations in town — and urged action. A core group of shops came up with the idea of legalizing those 135 and, in a compromise with city officials, got behind Proposition D. Otherwise there wasn't a big appetite at City Hall for medical marijuana.

Then–LAPD Chief Bill Bratton said in 2006 that pot sellers were involved in "wanton and flagrant misuse" of medical weed and that dispensaries were demeaning the "spirit and intent" of California's medical marijuana law, approved by voters in 1996.

Wesson's initiative would go head-to-head on the ballot with UCBA's measure, which doesn't place as much trust in the City Council. If voters say so, at least those limited legal immunity collectives will remain open.

The oldest group of limited legal immunity dispensaries, the Greater Los Angeles Collective Alliance, has been looking to the City Council, and to Wesson, to help fix the licensing quandary. It joined a bigger alliance, called the Southern California Coalition, that says its proposals on regulating collectives have informed Wesson's measure. A representative of SCC says it has lobbied the council president for "no fixed cap" on the number of shops in town, although it remains to be seen if Wesson agrees. "We're working with the city instead of against it," adds GLACA president Yami Bolanos.

She says there are as many as 1,500 collectives in the city, the vast majority illegal.

The council president wants Angelenos to weigh in, so he has organized public hearings on his pot proposal. They'll happen Nov. 2 at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center in Mid-City, Nov. 29 at City Hall and Dec. 7 at City Hall in Van Nuys, according to Wesson's office.

UPDATE at 12:22 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2016: The City Council voted to direct the City Attorney to prepare a March ballot measure containing Wesson's recommendations.


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