A bid from medical marijuana activists to get Los Angeles' new ban on pot shops overturned prompted the City Council to repeal its controversial measure Tuesday.
The preliminary 11-2 vote marked yet another twist in the saga of the city's struggle to regulate and control the burgeoning population of marijuana dispensaries – estimated to number between 472 and more than 1,000.
Critics have said the shops attract crime and frustrate neighbors, while proponents say dispensaries let medical marijuana patients fill prescriptions without confronting criminal drug dealers.
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Before the council Tuesday was a referendum submitted – along with more than 49,000 signatures – that would have asked voters to overturn the so-called "gentle ban" on pot shops that the council approved in July.
The council could have voted to place the referendum on the ballot or to repeal the ban; it chose the latter course.
The ban, authored by Councilman Jose Huizar, prohibited storefront pot shops but allowed collectives of three or fewer patients to grow their own pot, and it had an exception for licensed caregivers.
Patient groups and medical marijuana advocates had vowed immediately to get the ban overturned.
The referendum from the Committee to Protect Patients and Neighborhoods was certified by the LA city clerk last month.
"A lot of people were nervous about everything being shut down and so they were kind of stocking up, actually," said Tim Blakeley, manager of Sunset Junction Organic Medicine. "Aside from that, we just keep on doing what we do and try to do it right and be responsible."
At Tuesday's hearing, council members said they were forced into the repeal, and they called for help from Sacramento legislators to clarify murky state law regulating the sale of medical marijuana in the wake of the 1996 passage of Proposition 215.
Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who returned to work Monday after a leave to get treatment for cancer, spoke hoarsely about his support for and use of medical marijuana.
"Where does anybody go?" he asked, painting a picture of various large-scale criminal organizations taking over an underground pot trade.
But he noted that "maybe 100" pot shops actually "play by the rules."
Council President Herb Wesson and other council members said they didn't want to see an election on the issue.
"If we allow this to go on the ballot, it will be a Ringling Brothers circus," Wesson said in an interview before the vote. "I really don't think that the voters want to deal with this. ... So I think we repeal this thing and do what we should have done years ago, which is go to Sacramento, close loopholes so that we can put in force a policy that we can enforce."
Huizar and Councilman Joe Buscaino voted against the repeal, according to the city clerk's office. Absent were Councilmen Eric Garcetti and Richard Alarcon, who was being ordered to stand trial on criminal charges.
The council must return to the matter in a week for a second vote that will require at least eight "ayes" to make the repeal official.
Advocates for medical marijuana thanked the council for the vote.
"With the ban now repealed, we look forward to working together closely with council to develop and pass an ordinance that regulates and restricts dispensaries while preserving safe access for patients, and good union jobs for dispensary employees," said Rick Icaza, President of UFCW Local 770, which is part of the Committee to Protect Patients and Neighborhoods. "We are more confident than ever that we can achieve that goal."
Also approved was a resolution from Huizar, Council President Herb Wesson, Mitch Englander and Ed Reyes to call on the state Legislature "to address the inadequacies of state law" with regard to medical marijuana.
Tuesday's vote came several days after another in a series of federal enforcement actions against pot shops in the region.
The Los Angeles U.S. Attorney's Office on Sept. 25 announced a DEA raid of three storefronts, legal filings against three others and warning letters sent to dozens more. Stores targeted were in Eagle Rock and downtown LA, areas that are in Huizar's district.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Central District of California said at the time of the raids that he expected further enforcement actions in other parts of Los Angeles.
In June, federal officials targeted pot shops in 11 other Southern California cities.