CITYWIDE – What do a local medical marijuana advocate and the most vocal opponent of medical marijuana on City Council have in common?
They both dislike a ballot initiative that would allow and regulate two pot shops in the city.
On Wednesday David Welch, an attorney who represents caregivers and patients in the medical marijuana industry, filed the initiative on behalf of two residents.
The City Attorney’s Office released the title and summary on Friday, paving the way for proponents to begin collecting signatures. The language must first be published in local newspapers.
Welch said elected officials are taking too long give approval for dispensaries. The debate around dispensaries is currently embedded in the draft of the new Zoning Ordinance, which will dictate land uses throughout the city. Dispensaries are currently zoned out of the city, but many elected and appointed officials have expressed interest in allowing them in the new code.
The initiative would require roughly 9,100 signatures from registered Santa Monica voters and then a majority vote in a special or general election. If approved, all of the language in the initiative would become local law.
Councilmember Bob Holbrook, who has vocally opposed the inclusion of pot shops in the Zoning Code, said he opposes the initiative regardless of his stance on dispensaries.
He compared the initiative to another recent initiative aimed at putting future changes to the airport in the hands of the voters, which is financially backed by the national aviation advocacy group Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA).
“It’s just like the AOPA petition,” he said. “We should be allowed to legislate. These two initiatives are the same; it’s all about money.”
But Holbrook isn’t the only one who doesn’t like the direction of the petition.
Bill Leahy, who speaks on behalf of Santa Monicans for Safe Access (SAMOSA) which advocates for the allowance of dispensaries in the city, questions its content.
One issue, Leahy said, is the review process proposed for selecting a vendor. In the petition, the Director of Planning is given that power without opportunity for an appeal, Leahy said.
“Very strangely, the petition mandates that the Director of Planning give priority to persons who have a series of other specifically defined Santa Monica business licenses,” he said. “And that these licenses must have already been issued by Santa Monica prior to May 9, 2014. Exactly how this relates to proper regulation of a dispensary is a mystery.”
Acknowledging that he’s yet to hear official public debate on the topic, Councilmember Ted Winterer said (paraphrasing former President Bill Clinton) that he is of the mind that in Santa Monica “marijuana dispensaries should be legal, safe, and relatively rare.”
Winterer’s hitch with the proposed ordinance is, as mentioned by Leahy, the review process.
“It’s clearly designed just to favor two particular prospective business owners,” he said. “And I think the problem with that, is that if we were to allow dispensaries we’d want to go through some sort of review process where we chose who would be the most responsible and safe operators. This precludes us from doing so.”
Leahy further addressed the content, noting that it is too liberal in allowing dispensaries to be located 650 feet away from schools. Marijuana use is still prohibited at a federal level but Leahy said federal officials have released a set of guidelines for dispensaries. The guidelines warn cities not to implement rules for dispensaries that allow them within 1,000 feet of schools. The ordinance, if approved by voters, would put incoming dispensaries in danger of being shut down by the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Leahy favors the framework laid out by city planning officials, which is modeled on West Hollywood’s ordinance. That ordinance has 18 operating requirements, Leahy said, whereas the proposed petition has “about six.”
“In fact, one of the petition’s three operating conditions relating to hours of operation would have dispensaries open until 10 p.m. nightly,” Leahy said in an e-mail. “We prefer the Planning Commission’s ordinance in the (Draft Zoning Ordinance), which closes dispensaries by 8 p.m.”
He said that Welch represents dozens of “illegal dispensaries” in Los Angeles.
Welch responded in a e-mail: “I don’t have any comments.”
He then went on to claim that he represents Santa Monicans for Safe Access and that Leahy is not a part of this group.
Leahy responded, claiming that Welch may have “formed some random corporate entity” with the name but that his coalition has been operating “far longer” than the date the entity was formed.
Welch provided a link to the Secretary of the State’s website which shows a David Welch representing a group called Santa Monicans for Safe Access.
Nearly all of the SAMOSA-related content that the Daily Press was able to find traces back to Leahy’s Facebook page and coalition.
Leahy warned Welch that if he continues to use the name it would be prima facie evidence that he is engaged in violations of trademark laws.
“Looks like another entertaining election season is ahead of us,” Welch said.
Michael Chernis, an attorney who represents dispensary owners in the region, also opposes the measure, calling it “tone deaf” and “poorly timed.”
Like Leahy he opposes some of the content but he also sees it as detrimental to the political progress of dispensaries.
“Even giving them the benefit of having good intentions, what they’ve done is that they’ve threatened the process that is already underway,” Chernis said, “because they’ve threatened, there’s the possibility – and I don’t think they will in this case – that City Council says ‘you want your initiative? We’ll give your initiative its day. We won’t do anything until your initiative passes or fails.’”
If the initiative makes it onto the ballot (which Chernis doesn’t think will happen) but is then rejected by voters, council may not feel comfortable moving forward with its legislation, he said.