Stunned by the spread of medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles, the City Council moved Tuesday to close a loophole that had encouraged their rapid growth.
The council also rejected a dozen applications from dispensaries that sought permission to operate despite the city’s moratorium and prepared to extend the ban for six months beyond its expiration in September.
And a council committee unveiled a revamped proposal for a comprehensive ordinance to replace the moratorium.
“We know that time is passing. We’ll close the loopholes, plug these floodgates,” said Councilman Ed Reyes, who leads the committee that oversees medical marijuana.
When the city adopted the moratorium in 2007, it allowed 186 dispensaries to stay open. Now there are 600 or more.
On Tuesday, council members labored for eight hours to reassert authority over a situation they said was out of control. The marathon session came months after city officials learned that dispensaries were violating the moratorium with impunity.
The moratorium included a provision that allowed dispensaries to file hardship exemption applications with the council. The city attorney’s office had declined to take legal action to shut down any dispensaries with pending exemption requests. And the City Council had failed to act on them until Tuesday.
About 550 applications for exemptions have been filed.
The council voted to stop accepting applications, although it will be at least a week before that change takes effect.
The move was proposed by Councilman Jose Huizar, who complained that people were “putting up these fly-by-night operations knowing full well they could make a quick buck while they can operate under this loophole.”
The council rejected nine exemption applications without a hearing when their owners did not show up. Three dispensaries argued their cases, including L.A. Collective in Atwater Village.
That store drew particular attention because it filed one of five exemption requests for locations on Glendale Boulevard in Atwater, although only three of the stores are known to be open.
“People feel under siege,” said Council President Eric Garcetti, whose district includes the neighborhood.
In an interview at his dispensary, Edward Hovnanyan, one of the owners of L.A. Collective, expressed dismay that the council had targeted his store. He said that it was the first to open on Glendale Boulevard and that he has worked closely with city officials on his renovation. The shop has new floors and walls. A display case holds 20 jars filled with dusky green buds.
“I spent so much money, so much time, now I’m facing maybe being shut down,” he said. “If something’s wrong, something’s not right, why did government not stop me?”
L.A. Collective also drew attention because it is just across the street from a library. Under the new draft ordinance dispensaries would not be permitted within 1,000 feet of places where children gather.
The council spent a year struggling with an earlier ordinance drafted by the city attorney’s office. Council members complained it would shutter most dispensaries and finally abandoned it.
“We got stuck there for a while,” Reyes said. “We just broke out of it.”
Reyes cautioned that it could still be months before an ordinance is approved.
Meanwhile, he said the council will try to plow through the exemption applications.
“We are at a pivotal point given the rash of establishments that have created a negative impact in our communities,” Reyes said. “So we are going to have to roll up our sleeves and take up a number of these hardship cases.”
By John Hoeffel