Long Beach City Council Moves Forward with Medical Marijuana Ahead of Governor's Anticipated Signing of State Legislation

It appears that medical cannabis could be on its way back to Long Beach.

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With pending legislation at the state level expected to establish a framework for the industry to more uniformly operate in California, the Long Beach City Council voted to approve the city attorney’s office to move forward with a draft ordinance that would outline guidelines allowing for medical cannabis dispensaries to once again operate in the city.

A trio of bills, Senate Bill 643 and Assembly Bills 266 and 243 were approved by lawmakers before a September 11 midnight deadline and now sit on Governor Jerry Brown’s desk awaiting a signature. However, despite an attempt by council members outright or indirectly to continue the city’s current ban on medical marijuana—a provision granted by the collection of bills—the city council opted to move ahead of the governor’s anticipated approval and create an interim network for dispensaries to work under.

Vice Mayor Suja Lowenthal, who presided over the meeting in Mayor Robert Garcia’s absence, defended the motion to proceed against several council members' attempts to block the industry with a continued ban or through the use of constrictive regulations that would essentially render the administration of medical marijuana impossible. She instructed the city attorney’s office to come back with the drafted ordinance as soon as possible.

“The intent of my motion is for the timing to be now and now until the state framework was ready and that we would all be under that framework,” Lowenthal said to Assistant City Attorney Mike Mais. “And as you stated, go into effect as soon as possible and then have it superseded by the state’s framework.”

The state framework provides minimum requirements for land use, such as buffer areas from schools and child care facilities, as well as requirements for obtaining licenses. It outlines which agencies will regulate the same 17 types of licenses it will issue if the bills become law. However, it does provide certain powers to local governments to make those guidelines more restrictive, or as Fifth District Councilwoman Stacy Mungo suggested, to continue the current ban altogether.

Mungo wasn’t alone in her opposition to the decision to move forward with the draft ordinance as Eighth District Councilman Al Austin and Third District Councilwoman Suzie Price joined her in voting against the motion.

Price stuck to her long maintained stance that the city, given its lack of crime fighting resources and projected years of budget deficits on the horizon, simply cannot afford to adopt a policy that would allow medical marijuana to re-enter the city. She said that the unintended consequences that come along with the industry can vary, but noted that there’s been an uptick at Long Beach Unified School District for expulsions related to marijuana sales after the opening of dispensaries in the city and a teen use rate that tops 20 percent.

Her proposal that the city allow medical marijuana delivery services but ban store fronts was denied by Lowenthal.

“There is no doubt that dispensaries require city resources to support their function. That is concerning at a time when we have limited resources and approaching deficit years,” Price said. “To once again incorporate into our city an industry that failed us, before because of quality life issues, is taking a huge risk.”

Lowenthal’s draft ordinance called on the city attorney’s office to take into consideration a multitude of zoning issues facing the city, including the number of dispensaries allowed in the city, allowing operation in all zones not deemed residential, allowing cultivation in the city but not requiring it and allowing delivery services to operate in the city. It also established a minimum of nine dispensaries to exist in the city with a provision that labor peace agreement be met with employees at future Long Beach facilities.

The vice mayor instructed city staff to draw from the research they’ve already conducted and not to start over from scratch. Although a finite timeline wasn’t hammered out, Lowenthal said she expected the ordinance to come back as soon as city departments were “reasonably able to gear up.”

The discussion behind the dais came after yet another impassioned public comment segment that pitted concerned residents fearful that another round of the industry in the city would promote a spike in crime, and marijuana advocates and patients pleading with the city council to grant them the ability to acquire their medicine within the city’s bounds. This ability would eliminate, in some cases, hours of public transportation to surrounding cities for patients seeking medical cannabis. 

“The lengths that I have to go to get my medication is ridiculous,” one woman said. “It’s been almost 20 years since we voted this [the Compassionate Use Act] in to California. It did not get voted in willy nilly with no regulations and no rules and no nothing. Please let us have our medicine, that’s all we want.”

Paul Carter, an Eighth District resident raised his concerns that the dispensaries would only serve as a front for recreational drug use, asking the city to take pause on the subject given that by granting licenses to operators it could open itself up to litigation as medical marijuana is still illegal at the federal level.

“It doesn’t seem to make sense that the city starts taking action before there’s any type of regulatory scheme by the state,” Carter said.

The report, which compared and contrasted the proposed state bills with a draft ordinance presented by the city’s planning commission in February and recommendations completed by the medical marijuana task force in August, was originally set to be received and filed by the council. That notion did not sit will with patients or members of the task force that spent five months of hours long meetings hashing out proposals for buffer zones, testing regulations and other guidelines should the city opt to bring the industry back into the fold.

Jack Smith, one of Lowenthal’s appointees to the task force who served on the planning commission , noted that it had been over a year since the planning commission had forwarded it’s results to the council. He urged the council to take decisive action, whether it be continue the ban or to implement regulations that would allow the industry to operate within the city while protecting the public at large through regulations.

“It’s in your court. It’s time to, well the only phrase I can think of is not appropriate for prime time,” Smith said. “If you’re going to continue the ban, you need to take that action and continue the ban. If you’re not going to continue the ban, it’s time to give direction to the city attorney as to the policy issues that they’ve request of that direction. The absolute worst thing that you could do is receive and file this this evening and allow the ban to continue by default.”

Governor Brown has until October 11 to act on the trio of bills before him. Without his signature or a veto motion they would be chaptered into law by default. Although state legislators and city staff have mentioned that the process would still most likely stretch past the projected January 1, 2016 effective date, regulations in Long Beach would take effective once approved by the city council and would operate on an interim basis until state laws kicked in.

 



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