Medical Marijuana Ban in Long Beach Could be Struck Down by City Council Tuesday

Months after state lawmakers’ eleventh hour agreement to create a statewide infrastructure for medical cannabis, the Long Beach City Council will vote Tuesday night to rescind a ban on dispensaries of the city, making the weed industry open for business again—legally— inside Long Beach.

The anticipated vote would potentially strike down Chapter 5.89 of the city’s municipal code and replace it with Chapter 21.66, which outlines guidelines and regulations by which marijuana business operators would need to abide to exist in the city. It would require that business owners who qualify and are granted conditional use permits in the City of Long Beach also obtain all necessary state licenses and permits when they become available to continue operation in the city.

The ordinance came at the instruction of Vice Mayor Suja Lowenthal in late September when she asked city staff to draft guidelines that would allow the city to operate out in front of the recently passed Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act—a conglomeration of bills from the state senate and assembly.

If the council votes to amend the municipal code by adding the new chapter, the city could see upward of nine medical marijuana dispensaries in operation again, after the application process for required conditional use permits is completed by prospective business operators.

The process would include a 20-point system where applicants can improve their priority with the city in regard to obtaining one of the coveted nine licenses to operate in the city. Applicants would be awarded points for things like exceeding proposed buffer zones by at least 500 feet, having odor-eliminating filtration systems and having a security presence 24 hours per day. They would lose out on the chance for points for any past felony, misdemeanor convictions or if the applicant has had a previous permit or license revoked in the City of Long Beach.

Some marijuana advocates and prospective business operators have cast doubt on what the nine conditional use permits will actually provide for, stating that with permits required for cultivation in the city, the contention that nine dispensaries will be able to operate in the city is not accurate.

However, Assistant City Attorney Mike Mais, who’s been deeply engaged in the process of forming the new ordinance and presided over the Medical Marijuana Task Force meetings earlier this year, said that new state laws which allow for the importation of marijuana from outside the city’s borders from distributors licensed by the state would in fact allow for nine store fronts to exist in the city, as they would not be mandated to source from inside Long Beach.

“I think a clearer way to look at it is it’s nine CUPs,” Mais said. “Hypothetically you could have two for cultivation sites and seven for dispensaries, or you could have zero for cultivation and nine dispensaries.”

Mais said that in many ways, the new ordinance is less restrictive than past drafts, as 21.66 not only allows for cultivation outside the city, but also allows for non-residents to purchase medicine in Long Beach and allows for delivery and the sales of edibles. And unlike past versions, the new ordinance does provide for the ability to place a dispensary in each district of the city because it doesn’t bind them to industrial-zoned areas.

However, the seeming letting up of legislation and advancement of a possible rebirth for an industry that has been shut out from the city since February 2012 doesn’t have everyone ready to pass the peace pipe. Stefan Borst-Censullo, a marijuana advocacy lawyer and former staff member for Mayor Robert Garcia while he was a councilmember, said there are some hang ups that could keep the vote from garnering full support.

The banning of extracts in the ordinance is problematic to him, because it would not only force some patients who need the use of topical creams and other non-hallucinogenic oils for their conditions, but it would continue to force the production of hash oil and similar products underground. He said that allowing for the production and sale of such substances could not only attract high-skilled jobs—safe production of such products usually takes place in a lab— but also prevent accidents like the explosion that resulted in a Belmont Heights home going up in flames in April.

“We’re essentially just cutting out manufacturing and we’re forcing anyone [who] does want to produce in the City of Long Beach, they’re going to be doing it again in their own houses in completely unregulated fashion,” Borst-Censullo said.

He said that “discriminating” against patient choice in medicine could open the city up to civil liabilities, as most “manufacturers” would fall into protective classes like veterans and the disabled. 

Mais refuted that notion, saying specifically that because the federal government doesn’t recognize marijuana as a medicine, there is no way that that an Americans With Disabilities Act could be filed against the city. He said the intent of the ban in the ordinance was to do away with concentrates that had THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) levels of 80 percent or more, and to avoid the volatile production means that do sometimes result in explosions.

“An ordinance has to draw a line, so they drew a line,” Mais said of the regulations contained in 21.66. “These are based off the best practices we’ve gathered from around the country; they don’t originate from our office.”

The buffer zones proposed in the ordinance—1,500 feet from public/private high schools, 1,000 feet from parks and libraries, 1,000 feet from public/ private elementary schools—are near identical to other cities and the recommendations made by the task force earlier this year.

Task force member and prospective business operator, Greg Lefian, said that the inclusion of state-licensed childcare buffer and the continued whittling down of allowable dispensaries in the city are of concern for him. He said the limited store fronts could create a bottleneck effect for patients, which could create a nuisance.

However, he conceded it is a workable ordinance, and that nine possible dispensaries is a lot more palatable than the 80 or so store fronts that existed in 2009.

“To me it’s more of a will of the people issue,” Lefian said. “For the city council to ignore that alone would be a travesty. I think that them bringing this forward is a good sign of getting something done sooner rather than later.”

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.