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LA City Council Votes to Close 800 Marijuana Dispensaries

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Produced by HuffPost's Eyes & Ears Citizen Journalism Unit.

The Los Angeles City Council voted Tuesday to close roughly 800 medical marijuana dispensaries in the city by passing the first reading of an ordinance which would also require 75% of remaining dispensaries to relocate. The vote, to be confirmed in a second reading of the ordinance next Tuesday, will radically change the landscape of medical marijuana distribution in Los Angeles, which has been largely unregulated since dispensaries were first authorized by state law in 1996.

If the ordinance takes effect later this spring, medical marijuana dispensaries will have to find locations more than 1000 feet from various 'sensitive uses' -- including churches, public parks, schools, rehab centers, and other dispensaries. They will also be required to grow all their cannabis on-site, test it for pesticides, provide written notice of their existence to all neighbors within 1000 feet, maintain 24-hour complaint hotlines, hire unarmed security guards to patrol a two-block radius, keep 90 days of security footage and fulfill a number of other registration requirements with the city.

Dispensary owners, patients and medical marijuana advocacy groups all say the bill is overly restrictive, and that it relies on the false assumption that medical marijuana dispensaries are a magnet for crime and a menace to residential neighborhoods. Several speakers alluded to LA Chief of Police Charlie Beck's comments last week that "banks are more likely to be robbed than medical marijuana dispensaries," though Beck supports the present ordinance.

Patient William Lahey said that the bill's supporters overstate marijuana's influence on quality of life.

"We've been desensitized by the fact that we have 15,000 liquor stores and 9,000 restaurants that serve liquor [in Los Angeles]," Lahey said.

Though the ordinance would theoretically allow for as many as 186 dispensaries to remain open, some of its provisions threaten to make the actual number far lower. Don Duncan, California Director of Americans for Safe Access, argued that a 1000-foot buffer "may be sort of a de facto law against most of the facilities that would otherwise have qualified," since "it fences off a significant amount of the territory into which dispensaries could locate."

Tarek Tabsh, who owns a dispensary in Venice, said that the city hasn't considered how much of the property that meets location restrictions for dispensaries under the ordinance is actually vacant, meaning the dispensaries that are forced to relocate may have to close simply because they could not obtain a lease on a suitable property. Tabsh and others argue for a "good neighbor variance," which would exempt certain dispensaries from the new location requirements.

"If this ordinance works the way we write it," he said at the meeting on Tuesday, "we won't need those restrictions. Responsible operators should be allowed to stay where they are if they've developed a relationship with their community and if they can prove it to their councilmen, the neighborhood councils and the local law enforcement."

Council member Bill Rosendahl, who represents Tabsh's district, was one of two no-votes. He called the ordinance "insane" and "unworkable," and said that he believes it should be left up to each neighborhood to decide where dispensaries can operate.

"If a neighborhood has a problem with it, it shouldn't exist, but there have to be legitimate petitions from people in the community,' said Roshdahl.

But Council member Richard Alarcon, who represents the 7th district, claims that the effect of the location restrictions are greatly diminished by a provision that would allow collectives to open under the auspices of residential, elderly and licensed care facilities, all of which, he argues, are well-equipped to form patients' collectives and correctly monitor the distribution of medicine.