Recently unveiled maps showing where marijuana retailers can exist in Los Angeles once the city starts issuing dispensary permits next year illustrate a quandary for entrepreneurs hoping to tap into the green rush brought on by recreational marijuana legalization in California: There are few locations where weed selling will be legal.
The Department of City Planning drew up the maps based on proposed buffer-zone rules that prescribe an 800-foot distance between most pot retailers and schools, parks, libraries, churches and other dispensaries. That's larger than the average city block. Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Planning Commission approved the 800-foot buffer zone via unanimous vote. The City Council's Rules, Elections and Intergovernmental Relations Committee was expected to take up the matter on Monday. It could refer the 800-foot buffer zone to the full council.
The maps show how, in some parts of the city, the rule that pot shops stay clear of “sensitive use” sites such as schools and churches while also maintaining a distance from one another would play out: Many neighborhoods would offer few opportunities for retail weed.
The city is trying to get its rules for cannabis together before the expected January start of legal recreational sales, approved by voters statewide in November. We reached out to City Hall's new cannabis czar, Cat Packer, but were told she was not available.
The turf squeeze is by design, according to experts. The city has had to strike a balance between the not-in-my-backyard neighborhood councils and the burgeoning cannabis business, which is expecting an explosion in demand next year as legal recreational sales come online. Some neighborhood activists wanted to see 1,000-foot sensitive-use buffers. Weed entrepreneurs were lobbying for a 600-foot buffer zone, which is required under state law.
“You want to satisfy neighborhood people but also make sure customers get what they want,” says Kian Kaeni, a spokesman for the United Cannabis Business Alliance.
The compromise of 800 feet isn't pleasing to many in the pot game, however, and the planning maps seem to prove just how sparse weed shops could be if the location restrictions are approved by the City Council. The city has recognized about 135 or fewer existing shops that are expected to continue operating under the new rules. But it's widely expected that the number of retail licenses will far exceed that. Even doubling that number might be conservative, some experts say, especially in light of the estimated 1,000 or so illegal shops operating in the city. What's more, recreational legalization was pitched as an entrepreneurial opportunity for people of color, oft victimized in the war of drugs, to open new cannabis businesses in their communities.
The question is whether the maps will allow enough shops to exist, pot business leaders say. “It's tough to say when enforcement goes into effect if they'll have enough supply to meet demand,” Kaeni says.
Ruben Honig, executive director of the independent trade group Los Angeles Cannabis Task Force, said via email that the 800-foot limit is “a bad idea.”
“They will reinforce the illicit market and make it a lot harder for disadvantaged communities to participate in this industry,” he said. “There's no reason the city shouldn't align its regulations with the state's 600-foot buffer zones.”
Adam Spiker, executive director of the Southern California Coalition, perhaps the largest group of marijuana businesses in L.A., calls the buffer potentially “problematic.”
“The Southern California Coalition is engaged in continuing talks with the city on the subject of a sensitive use radius,” he said via email. “If the city persists in requiring separate and distinct locations for medical and recreational uses, follows the additional sensitive uses mandated by state law and does not enlarge land use for cannabis businesses, maintenance of an 800-foot sensitive-use radius becomes even more problematic than it is now. We will continue to engage the city on this issue.”