NEWSWATCH

New Long Beach City Rules For
Medical Cannabis To Be Drafted

Despite Changing Public Perception On Its Medicinal Qualities,
Federal Law Still Prohibits Use, Distribution Of Marijuana

By Tiffany Rider - Assistant Editor

September 24, 2013 – In a reversal from what was originally proposed as a ballot initiative, the Long Beach City Council approved 8-0 to proceed with having the city attorney’s office draft an ordinance creating a conditional use permit (CUP) process under the city’s zoning laws to allow medical marijuana collectives to operate in Long Beach.

“This council is on record having already adopted an ordinance . . . to provide this for people who need it under controlled situations,” Mayor Bob Foster said at the September 10 meeting. “Our ability to regulate was taken away by the courts. What we’re about tonight is to see if we can craft a proposal that would meet the court decision but provide for medical use. . . .We tried to do the right thing. We’re trying to work with what we have.”

As stipulated in the motion approved by council, the draft ordinance must specify: performance standards, including a security plan; location restrictions within certain zones, including industrial, with no residential and institutional zones; a cap of two collectives per council district and no more than 18 citywide; an appropriate distance of the collectives from schools; and a description of the CUP.

Eighth District Councilmember Al Austin, a cosigner on the original agenda item, offered his first comments on the issue as the newest member of the council. He recognized the efforts of the previous petition drive to get a medical marijuana initiative through for a special election last year, noting that it’s impossible to ignore 30,000-plus petition signatures when the same number of people voted in the last citywide election.

Austin also voiced his concern about the city’s current ban on medical marijuana storefronts. “I’m not comfortable with an outright ban because that doesn’t mean [marijuana use is] going to go away,” he said. “It’s going to be in our alleys. It’s going to be dealt out of apartments. It’s going to serve an underground economy. It’s not going to serve the best interests of the city.” According to Mitch Evans of the medical marijuana dispensary, Cornerstone Meds, the ban is serving an underground economy. Evans told the Business Journal that there were hardly any delivery services when medical marijuana storefronts were operating under the city’s previous ordinance. Since the ban was enacted, delivery services have proliferated, he said.

“It’s just gone berserk,” he said. “There’s no accountability, no paper trail. They’re not corporate entities. It’s a cash business.” A search for “Long Beach” on medical marijuana collectives mapping site weedmaps.com reveals at least 30 different delivery-only operations serving the city.

Kendra Carney, deputy city attorney, told the Business Journal that the municipal code explicitly bans these mobile dispensaries from operating within city limits. Long Beach Police Department Lt. Michael Pennino of the department’s drug investigation section of the gang and violent crime division, confirmed the ban.

Long Beach Collective Association Boardmember Adam Hijazi, who testified before the city council on September 10 in support of the city regulating medical marijuana outlets, said the association is aligned with the effort to have a zoning ordinance that could regulate all medical marijuana establishments – mobile or otherwise.

“A zoning ordinance will effectively prevent the city from becoming the Wild West,” Hijazi told the Business Journal. “We don’t want to see a proliferation of business. We do believe in fair, safe access in the city. . . . The access should be in public view with articles of corporation.” Timing was the consideration for bringing the item back to the city council, not only with the Obama Administration’s reaction, or lack thereof, to the laws in the states of Washington and Colorado allowing for recreational use of marijuana, but also with the recent broadcast news report on CNN from Dr. Sanjay Gupta, neurosurgeon and assistant professor of neurosurgery at Emory University School of Medicine. Gupta announced in early August an apology for “misleading” the public with his previous opposition to marijuana use. On August 11, he aired a documentary called “Weed” on CNN, which reveals his reversal of the opinion penned in the 2009 op-ed titled “Why I would Vote No on Pot” published in TIME Magazine.

Gupta’s position was cited in testimony before the city council prior to its vote in favor of drafting an ordinance, as well as in Hijazi’s conversation with the Business Journal. “Systematically, for the last 75 years, there has been a lot of negative perception regarding medical cannabis, and cannabis in general,” he said. “I don’t think anything states it better than Sanjay Gupta’s report, coming out and apologizing that to put it on the same level as heroin and methamphetamine is not fair because there is medicinal value in cannabis. I believe that the facts on the ground are different from the technicalities on the books.”

Despite changing positions in public discourse, marijuana remains an illegal substance classified as a Schedule I drug by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “We have to take the actual law into account,” Carney said of drafting a medical marijuana regulatory ordinance. “And the actual federal law hasn’t changed.”

Lieutenant Pennino reflected on the city’s current situation, which is a ban on medical marijuana, and what may result if the ban is lifted. “With our [city’s] ban, there was a good faith effort [shown to the federal government] that Long Beach is trying to ban these dispensaries,” he said. “We partnered with the federal government to assist us in sending out letters to land owners letting them know that it was against federal law. They accepted that, seeing we had the ban and were serious about getting these dispensaries out of the city. Now I don’t know where that relationship is going to go or how that is going to end up.”

Suja Lowenthal, councilmember for the 2nd District, agreed that “ultimately medical marijuana needs to be approved by the FDA and prescriptions picked up at our local pharmacies, just like any other prescribed drug. . . . However, the journey to achieving that status begins with smaller, legal, legislative and elected struggles. It includes missteps and overreach. That’s the beauty of public policy. It’s a working document, and sometimes we misstep and sometimes we overreach. Most importantly, it includes leadership and resolve.”