Long Beach Pot Ban Narrowly Avoided, Vote Delayed to Jan. 10.

At about 10:15 p.m. last night, after more than five hours of tedious proceedings, the Long Beach City Council deadlocked on a motion to ban medical marijuana collectives in the city, a measure strongly backed by both the city attorney and police department. The vote, with four members in favor of such a ban, and four against, was quickly followed by a second vote on a motion introduced by councilwoman Suja Lowenthal, to delay another vote until Jan. 10, which passed 6 to 2. Lowenthal had asked her colleagues for the delay to allow councilman Robert Garcia, who was absent, to be able to participate in the vote.

The vote followed some three hours of comments by public speakers ranging from medical marijuana patients and activists--and their lawyers and lobbyists--to local business owners and residents who claimed that dispensaries were selling pot to "kids on bikes" and tossing paraphernalia on the sidewalk. One of the patients who spoke, Mark Lee, who has no legs and is wheelchair bound, urged the council not to ban the dispensaries because it would force him to obtain his medicine on the street.

"Just a few years ago, the only option in Long Beach was the streets and these so-called dealers sometimes would take my money away and said if I could catch them, I could get my money back." Lee credited the council with allowing him to live a "pain-free life" by having passed its 2010 ordinance, which allowed dispensaries to obtain permits to grow and distribute cannabis if they won a lottery process that cost $14,000 to enter.

Not all clubs were able to afford that fee, and some refused to pay out of principle, and the city reacted by shutting down several of those clubs with police raids and hefty fines. That activity led to a lawsuit on behalf of Ryan Pack and Anthony Gayle, members of a pair of shuttered clubs, who argued that the city's requirement that collectives pay cash to receive permits to do something illegal under federal law was itself illegal. Last month, the California Court of Appeal ruled in their favor, which effectively threw out major portions of the city's ordinance, and invalidated numerous civil proceedings against dispensaries the city had charged with violating the ordinance.

City Attorney Robert Shannon, who drafted the motion to ban collectives, argued that the council had no choice but to enact a ban thanks to the Pack appeal. He even went so far as to warn council members that the court ruling meant they could be arrested and thrown in jail for permitting dispensaries to operate in Long Beach. "The court suggested that individual city employees involved in the permit process may be subjected to federal criminal prosecution for aiding and abetting a criminal offense," he argued, something that appeared to terrify councilman Patrick O'Donnell, who asked Shannon to elaborate.

"By approving this ordinance, I could go to jail, right?" he asked.

"That is correct," Shannon responded.

However under further questioning by councilwoman Rae Gabelich, Shannon backed away from his initial claim that the Pack decision required the city to enact a total ban on dispensaries. Instead, he acknowledged, the ruling only prohibits the city from charging exorbitant permit fees to clubs, or to place any other requirements on them to operate, as opposed to simply restricting the clubs from operating during certain hours, or near parks or schools, which the city can continue to do.

Katherine Aldrich, who operated the 562 Collective, which police raided earlier this year and which is now shuttered, has been engaged in a year-long lawsuit against the city. "I would almost guarantee that every citizen in here will sue Long Beach if you ban their collectives," she told the council. "How much has it cost our city to file the two-dozen-plus nuisance abatement lawsuits and hundreds of citations, and all of those have been dropped. This is a waste of our tax money. It saddens me that our city is at this point."

Without accepting any more public comments, the council is expected to vote on whether to enact the ban on Jan. 10. Part of the lack of clarity facing the city is whether the California Supreme Court will take the Pack ruling, which the city has appealed, and issue its own findings. But it appears Long Beach isn't willing to wait the year it will likely take for the case to be decided.


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