City Council Votes to Form Task Force to Help Direct Decision on Medical Marijuana

After a nearly five and a half hour long study session held Tuesday night, City Council voted to again postpone any concrete decision on the future of medical marijuana (MMJ) in Long Beach, opting instead to form a task force to help discuss possible issues with the proposed ordinance, and pushing any potential vote to April at the earliest.

In what Mayor Robert Garcia described as one of the most civil conversations pertaining to MMJ—and seemingly the longest—both council members and public stakeholders voiced their concerns about the recommendations from the planning commission during the session that far eclipsed the announced duration of one hour. Ultimately, in a 6-1 vote, the council put off agendizing the proposal, calling on the city manager to start the process of forming a task force, a precursor to another study session with hopes of potentially reaching a resolution in April.

Each council member—with the exception of 4th District’s open seat—will select 2 members for the 16-person task force, for which Garcia opted not to nominate any task force members. Despite pushing back the issue of MMJ yet again, Garcia said that a decision needs to be made on the subject that has been debated since before he became a council member in 2009.

“What I do think we owe the public is a resolution, and a resolution that comes with a responsible timeline attached,” Garcia said. “I don’t think anyone is interested in discussing this for another year.”

Under directions handed down from the council in September and December of 2013, the planning commission undertook writing an ordinance that took into account zoning, buffers from certain entities, security measures and the total number of potential conditional use permits (CUP) to grant in the event the council voted to proceed with the ordinance.

Director of Development Services Amy Bodek explained that the CUPs granted under the ordinance would be handed out only after a strict application process in which candidates would be graded on an 18 point scale. A potential operator could gain points by increasing the distance of the business from residential units and by going “above and beyond” in their security measures. The security measures already mandate that storefronts have video surveillance that’s linked to the LBPD, alarm systems and a full time security guard, among other things.

A potential operator would lose points if anyone in the ownership structure of the application has a criminal history or if the operator has previous violations under the previous ordinance or ban in Long Beach. Once granted, the CUPs would be good for 5 years and would require renewal every 5 years thereafter.

“We also would require numerous background checks, we would need to understand the organizational structure of the business, who is involved in that business and we would have those individual’s names so that it is very clear who is influencing the business and who is actually running the business,” Bodek said.

The proposed ordinance defines an MMJ business as consisting of two parts, a dispensary and a cultivation component. It stipulated that a ratio of 1:1 (one cultivator can supply one dispensary but operate under the same CUP) exist between the two components and that all cultivation occur inside the city. Vice Mayor Suja Lowenthal took exception with the mandatory growth of cannabis within the city, calling it unreasonable and unrealistic.

“Why would we force collectives to cultivate 100 percent of their product here if we are to find out that no other city in the state of California requires that,” Lowenthal asked.”What would be our justification to be the only city to do so?”

The ordinance, which caps dispensaries at a max of two per district for a total of 18 city wide, went on to say that while cultivation can only occur in industrial zones, only one dispensary site could co-locate with its corresponding grow-site. It also states that a maximum of three grow sites can exist in a given district's industrial zones. Other portions of commercial real estate (Community Commercial Automobile-Oriented (CCA) and California Highway (CHW)) have been zoned for store fronts to exist outside industrial zones.

Despite the addition of the two other zones made available for store fronts, only one dispensary per district is allowed to exist in either zone with the second potential dispensary then having to either co-locate or exist independently in an industrial zone. When looking at the maps drawn up by the commission, some districts (2 and 6) lack industrial zoning entirely while others (3 and 5) have zoning that is ostensibly off limits—Douglas Park in the 5th District and the Wetlands in the 3rd District were discussed as industrial but prohibited—which would push the burden of cultivation onto districts with more usable industrial zones.

Long Beach Medical Marijuana Ordinance Map

“I do have some problems with this map,” said 9th District Councilman Rex Richardson whose district is one of two in the city with large industrial zones. “All this red [CCA and CHW zones] and blue [Industrial Planned Development Areas] looks like the headquarters for Captain America, maybe Superman. I’ve got some issues with that.”

Richardson, who expressed hesitation last week as to including MMJ in the passage of the 2015 Federal Legislative Agenda, continued his pattern of wanting to hold off on a definitive vote until more information can be brought to the council’s table by the commission. He also questioned the usage of parks as a filter for the buffer zones, pointing out that some districts lack the park space that others do making it an unfair application to the proposed maps. He also pointed out that given the dearth of industrial space and the cap of three grow sites per district, the ordinance can realistically only support about 12 dispensaries given the 1:1 ratio, not the 18 suggested in the language of the ordinance. Richardson's discovery was quickly verified by Bodek. Richardson called on the commission to include libraries and child development centers in future maps. 

“I believe in access but I do not support any triggers that put more uses in one area of town than the others,” Richardson said.

The current proposal only accounted for a 1,000 ft. buffer between two separate MMJ dispensaries, a 1,000 ft. buffer from elementary/middle schools and parks and a 1,500 ft. zone separating a MMJ component from a high school.

Buffer zones weren’t the only part of the presentation that were a source of questions from the council. Cost and the lack of resources were themes of Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna’s section of the presentation, as he laid out past problems tied to MMJ, including 18 active lawsuits (34 total filed against the city), over $3.3 million in business license fines—much of which remains uncollected—and 142 search warrants executed by the LBPD, each costing the department an estimated minimum of 38 hours apiece

“Many city departments struggled to address these challenges with our current staffing levels,” Luna said. “We need to ensure that if the city sanctions dispensaries in the future that all affected departments have the appropriate resources.”

The statements made by Luna and the subsequent follow-up questions from Councilwoman Suzie Price pushed the 3rd District representative toward Richardson’s camp, opting to wait for more information before moving forward with the issue. Price, a prosecutor in Orange County, said she’s sympathetic to the issues the police department may face with the implementation of such an ordinance, something their budget doesn’t currently allow for.

“Our police department is not ready for this policy change,” Price said. “They don’t know how many additional hours they’re going to need. They don’t know how much money they’re going to need. They are not ready for this and they won’t be ready for this until we have an opportunity to do an analysis to see whether or not the sales tax we expect to receive from these businesses will in fact cover the cost of enforcement, public safety and security.” 

A tax on MMJ was passed in April 2014 with Measure A, setting an initial gross receipts tax at 6% and giving the council discretion to raise it to 10%. The measure also set a tax on square footage for grow sites at $15 per square foot, with the ability to raise to $50 per square foot, and a reduced rate of $10 per square foot for grow sites certified as a 501c3 non-profit. While the commission is expected to report back soon on the anticipated cost of implementing the ordinance, members of the commission said it would take some time to come up with realistic projections of the tax revenue.

The council deliberated meticulously, drawing the ire of some of the members of the public who believed that the process has gone on long enough. A collection of disabled veterans, lawyers, doctors and advocates spoke to the council, conveying their displeasure that a resolution hasn’t been reached yet.

“I’ve always seen Long Beach be a leader and a trend setter in the nation,” said a community member from the 3rd District. “If you say that you’re compassionate with your patients and your constituents here in Long Beach, remember, we’re the one who put you where you are.”

Stefan Borst-Censullo, a former staff member of 1st District Councilwoman Lena Gonzalez, who is now a marijuana advocacy lawyer, spoke first-hand on how MMJ has helped him in his personal life and how the ordinance currently in place is not good enough for the patients in Long Beach.

“I was privy to the development of this policy as a legislative aid of the director in the 1st District and I can definitively say that this ordinance, as it stands right now, does not sufficiently address the needs of the medical marijuana patients,” Borst-Censullo said. “It creates a barrier to access that is intentionally impractical and was built in the spirit of maintaining mistakes of our prohibitionist past.”

Chapter 5.89 of the Long Beach Municipal Code, the current prohibition ordinance in place in the city, was adopted in February 2012 allows for 3 or fewer patients or caregivers to cultivate and dispense among themselves, but banned the operation of dispensaries or cultivation sites in the city. The passage of Measure A last year and the potential for a statewide proposal for legalization in 2016 had many questioning the council’s calculated approach.

Price, citing the council’s fiduciary duty to all of the taxpayers in Long Beach, said this discussion was never about the merit or benefits of MMJ, but rather whether or not the city can afford to to change its policy on dispensaries and grow sites.

“We shouldn’t be rushing this process,” Price said. “This shouldn’t be about whether or not people should be able to use marijuana to assist them with health ailments or any other condition they may have. This isn’t a debate about that. This is a debate about ‘we are a city, one of the largest urban cities in the state of California, embarking on a journey that might cost us some money.’ Why is it going to cost us money? Because this particular type of establishment attracts unintended consequences.” 



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