Long Beach City Council votes to draft new medical marijuana law

Long Beach city leaders have agreed to draft an ordinance that would allow and regulate medical marijuana collectives within the city, opening another chapter in the years-long saga over whether the city has the authority to control dispensaries. In a unanimous vote, Long Beach City Council members directed the city attorney Tuesday to draft an ordinance that would once again allow a limited number of marijuana shops to operate within city limits. The council debate came a day after a federal judge dealt a blow to a group seeking to overturn the city’s medical marijuana ban through the ballot box.

U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins ruled Monday that Long Beach officials were not required to place a medical marijuana initiative on the city’s April ballot, even though the initiative had gathered enough signatures to qualify, because the petition’s language had not requested consideration for a general election. She also rejected a request from proponents to force the city into a full count of more than 43,000 signatures.

City Council members had initially been expected to vote on a proposal to draft a medical marijuana initiative to be placed on the city’s April ballot.

Instead, council members agreed to bypass an election and move forward with drafting a new zoning ordinance to regulate collectives, including caps on the number of dispensaries citywide and in each council districts, and restrictions that would confine them to areas zoned for industrial uses.

“Our city needs the same authority as other cities and states to regulate this substance in plain, public view,” said Councilwoman Suja Lowenthal, one of the proposal’s three sponsors. “Right now, I think we have an obligation to consider what 30,000 residents believe is a worthwhile ballot issue.”

City Atty. Charles Parkin said his office would proceed with caution, considering Long Beach’s complicated legal battles in trying to regulate marijuana dispensaries in the past.

The city’s initial ordinance, introduced by Lowenthal and passed in 2009, created a lottery system for permits, and limited the number and location of storefront dispensaries.

Thirty-two dispensaries were selected in that lottery, but the process was halted when it was challenged in court. A state appeals court ultimately threw out the ordinance, saying the city’s regulations conflicted with federal law.

In response, the City Council opted to use zoning regulations to ban all collectives of three people or more.

“This is fluid,” Parkin said. He and other city officials believe that Long Beach, unlike other cities, is still bound by the appeals court ruling, which limits the officials’ ability to regulate dispensaries. “I can’t give them any guarantee that what they adopt will not be challenged or overturned by a court.”

Parkin also said that by using local zoning laws to regulate dispensaries, the city may stand a better chance of surviving a legal challenge.

The city attorney’s office will now work with Planning Commission staff to develop proposed regulations. Zoning ordinances must be approved by the city’s Planning Commission before they can be considered by the City Council.

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