Regulating Pot Shops: 3 competing medical marijuana initiatives on Tuesday ballot

Just days before voters decide the fate of medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles, some San Pedro merchants are becoming frustrated with a recent proliferation of the shops in and around their historic downtown district.

The surge is among the ripple effects of Proposition 215, the 1996 state measure that legalized marijuana for medical use. Subsequent efforts to regulate the industry by local governments throughout the state have largely resulted in chaos.

And Los Angeles is no exception.

For those who have been working to put San Pedro on upscale tourism maps, the rapid growth of clinics in the port town has been particularly frustrating.

"What they bring in is a lot of loitering, people smoking pot outside on the steps," said Michael Koth, co-owner of Off the Vine, a boutique wine shop that shares a building with one of the collectives. "And we see this all the time - one person will go into the clinic, purchase the product, then pass it out to people on the street, so there's drug dealing going on."

Virtually unregulated, the businesses have posed an ongoing dilemma statewide.

It is believed that large numbers of the clients are recreational users, although a medical card is required to make purchases.

"We have no regulation right now," said Dennis Gleason, an aide to Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino.

Buscaino believes there should be no storefront pot dispensaries, but that the drug rather should be handled through licensed pharmacies. But for now, that's not possible because federal law still lists marijuana as a dangerous and illegal drug.

Today, 18 states have approved marijuana for medical use.

Caught in a series of back-and-forth court cases, local jurisdictions have been waiting to see how questions about regulations played out, Gleason said. Less than two weeks ago, the state Supreme Court ruled that cities have the right to ban medical marijuana dispensaries.

The growing presence of pot dispensaries in downtown San Pedro - several new ones have opened in recent months - has caused concern among those who have been hoping to boost the town's image.

"We don't need this in the historic downtown district," said Eric Eisenberg, president of the business improvement district and an owner of commercial property in the area.

"I'm not against the use of marijuana ... but I think (the shops) have a negative effect in a community like ours.

"Every day I get calls from prospective (marijuana collective) tenants who are willing to pay two to three times to rent, but I say 'no' to them."

Koth also supports the availability of medical marijuana - he voted for Proposition 215 - but said the facilities need more oversight. They also can be magnets for crime as they trade in cash.

Three marijuana initiatives on Tuesday's Los Angeles city ballot could produce partial fixes. Two of them - D and E - would roll back the number of collectives to just the 135 that existed in 2007, making city regulations more manageable. Currently, hundreds of collectives operate throughout the city, with many clustered in particular parts of town - 12 are in the general vicinity of San Pedro's shopping district.

New medical marijuana dispenseries are popping up in downtown San Pedro. This one is located along Seventh Street near Mesa.
New medical marijuana dispenseries are popping up in downtown San Pedro. This one is located along Seventh Street near Mesa. (Brad Graverson/Staff Photographer)

An estimated half a dozen marijuana shops operate in neighboring Wilmington - "too many," as one business leader put it.

Measure F would allow the shops that have opened since 2007 to remain open, which critics say poses a challenge to regulation and oversight.

Measures D and F both propose restrictions on how close the facilities can be to schools, churches, parks and other public gathering spots.

For now, Gleason said, the shops are proliferating "like weeds" across the city, which has little recourse to control or regulate them.

The Los Angeles City Council voted to ban the shops in 2012 but later rescinded that action pending the Supreme Court case.

"A lot of it comes down to the fact that the original legislation came through a (state) ballot initiative," Gleason said. Without legislative clarifications, "it's led to a patchwork of local jurisdictions forming their own legislation."

Depending on the outcome of Tuesday's election, the City Council will be able to take up the issue of regulating the clinics within its borders. Even if Measure F is approved, some of the existing shops may need to move if they are too close to public gathering spots.

A new shop that opened in the former Skippy's Cafe in San Pedro, for example, operates next to a church.

"The solution for me is for medical marijuana dispensaries to be as regulated as alcohol establishments are, needing to get conditional-use permits so neighborhoods can decide if they want a dispensary or not," Koth said. "They'd have to go through the same plan checks, building and safety - then let the neighborhood decide."

donna.littlejohn@dailybreeze.com

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