Nearly a year after medical marijuana was approved by voters last November the first dispensaries have began to spring up again in Long Beach, ending a years-long ban and countless deliberations on how or if the substance should be allowed back into the city.
With two of the city’s 32 marijuana businesses open in the city and the rest working their way through the application process the industry was jolted again Tuesday night as the Long Beach City Council voted 5-3 to move forward with an ordinance that could allow recreational marijuana to be sold in the city.
Tuesday’s vote comes just over a month and a half before the State of California will begin issuing permits to marijuana businesses to sell “adult use” marijuana products as a statewide initiative to allow recreational sales was also approved by voters last November. The statewide vote set up a framework for recreational marijuana statewide but left it up to local municipalities to allow or ban the practice.
The council’s decision was expedited by the fact that without an ordinance on the books either banning or allowing the sale of recreational marijuana, a dispensary could apply to the state for a permit starting January, potentially leading to legal challenges that could result in the city losing its ability to govern that process going forward.
While the city does have an implicit ban on recreational sales through its permissive zoning it and other cities with similar zoning laws have been cautioned that relying on such implicit bans could invite costly and uncertain lawsuits if someone were to challenge it starting at the beginning of the year.
“There is a risk that beginning January 1st 2018, some marijuana businesses in an attempt to bypass the city may apply for an adult use permit with the state,” said assistant to the city manager Ajay Kolluri. “If those businesses are successful the city will have lost its local control over the adult use industry and the state will become the sole licensing authority for adult use marijuana businesses in Long Beach.”
In voting to pursue the option that would eventually allow the sale of recreational cannabis, the city will first put in place a temporary ban before drafting a full ordinance outlining stipulations for future sales. Kolluri said the temporary hold is necessary to prevent businesses from applying to the state while the city crafts its guidelines.
The ordinance is expected to return to the council sometime next month and the temporary hold is projected to last about 180 days while a more detailed policy is created.
A motion to draft an ordinance banning the sale of recreational marijuana was made by Third District Councilwoman Suzie Price, the most vocal critic on the council of bringing the industry back to the city since it began discussing the issue in earnest nearly three years ago. She called for the item to be revisited once the city’s medical operations were fully implemented so the impacts could better be weighed.
“I think that would be a better time for us to reevaluate the situation, we’ll have some data from which we can assess what the implications or consequences are, if any,” Price said. “Perhaps there will be no consequences, and then we can roll out the co-use option.”
Price was joined in opposition by council members Daryl Supernaw and Stacy Mungo.
First District Councilwoman Lena Gonzalez made the motion to instruct the city attorney to draft an ordinance to allow future sales and Vice Mayor Rex Richardson amended the motion to include provisions for labor and equity issues to be worked into the draft ordinance before a council vote.
Gonzalez’s support for the industry comes nearly two years since she cast a critical swing vote on an item that would have allowed a phased-in approach for the medical cannabis industry, an approach that called for far fewer storefronts than advocates were calling for and a delivery-only period for operators.
That vote was a catalyst for the eventual ballot measure that Long Beach voters approved with nearly 60 percent support last year. The motivation on Tuesday appeared to be in part that the city would not lose regulatory control of another side of the industry should residents decide to take it to the polls again.
“The city has gone back and forth on this issue for years, this is one that’s really clear that the voter intent is there, in Long Beach it was higher than the rest of the state, Richardson said. “With medicinal we had time and time again to pass an ordinance and we failed to do so and the result was the industry went to the ballot and sort of tied the city’s hands. I don’t want to make that mistake again.”
While the ordinance has yet to be drafted some broad outlines were discussed during Tuesday night’s meeting as to what it could eventually include. Kolluri said that city staff would recommend to the council that the current cap of 32 marijuana dispensaries city-wide remain unchanged, and to accomplish this medical and recreational operators could be required to co-locate in some instances.
The same rules could apply to recreational operations as the ones that guided the locations of medicinal dispensaries with applicants having to abide by buffers set up during the process to ensure that businesses weren’t located too close to schools, parks or residential neighborhoods. And for those non-dispensary businesses—cultivation, testing, etc—that wish to switch to a recreational model, the city will provide an expedited application process to consider the move.
An ordinance and a vote by council is expected before the end of the year.