Los Angeles voters headed to the polls on May 21 will be asked to choose between three distinct, yet overlapping ballot measures seeking to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries operating within city limits.
Proponents of the three initiatives -- Proposition D and ordinances E and F -- argue that a new, comprehensive policy is necessary to put an end to nearly 17 years of ambiguity surrounding the distribution of medical marijuana in Los Angeles. The measures include plans to cap the number of dispensaries permissible, increase taxes on earnings, and standardize operation hours and distances from sensitive areas, such as schools and childcare centers.
But there's an odd man out in this ballot measure battle royale.
Ordinance E, which made its way on the ballot via signature, has seen support from its proponents dwindle. Its key promoter, the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW), decided to jump ship in January, throwing their vote behind the Los Angeles City Council's Proposition D, seen largely as a compromise between the two ordinances.
However due to current election rules, Ordinance E is there to stay.
"There's no way to remove Ordinance E from the May 21 ballot or the voter guide... and that may lead to some confusion," says Bradley Hertz, an attorney with the Sutton Law Firm who represented the proponents of Ordinance E. "It's up to the campaigners to help explain that."
City officials and those close to each campaign say Ordinance E's failure to levy additional taxes on dispensaries makes it the least desirable of the three ballot measures. Both Proposition D and Ordinance F would increase taxes on medical marijuana dispensaries from $50 to $60 per $1,000 of gross earnings, a 20 percent increase.
With Ordinance E in the periphery, the fate of medicinal pot in Los Angeles will come down to the question of proliferation. Proposition D would cap the number of dispensaries at 135, the exact number of clinics operating in the city prior to the September 2007 moratorium imposed by the City Council. Ordinance F would allow an unlimited number of medical marijuana collectives, so long as each dispensary meets a list of requirements.
For Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Koretz, that's simply too many.
"[Ordinance] F would allow the remaining 1,700 to 1,800 clinics not approved by the city to stay open," says Koretz, a principal supporter of Proposition D and self-proclaimed ally of medicinal pot use. "That may very well increase to over 2,000 dispensaries, many of which are nuisances in their neighborhoods."
Koretz points to his time on the West Hollywood City Council during the HIV and AIDS epidemics of the 1980s as proof that he isn't diametrically opposed to medical marijuana.
Proposition D, he says, is a "compromise between the two ordinances," taking the best ideas from both to create a safe and sustainable model for both patients of medicinal pot and the public at large. The city's proposition would also mandate background checks for employees of dispensaries and grant minors access to clinics only when accompanied by a parent or legal guardian.
Proponents of Ordinance F, however, believe that capping the number of dispensaries would make it difficult for patients to get access to the medicine prescribed by their doctors. Ordinance F would also prohibit minors from ever entering clinics and force volunteers, not just employees, to get background checks prior to working at dispensaries.
Supporters also argue that the city's approved list of medical marijuana clinics is arbitrary.
"We simply don't know how many medical marijuana patients there are in Los Angeles," says Bruce Margolin, Director of Los Angeles' NORML chapter, an advocacy group seeking outright legalization of marijuana. "Therefore, we believe clinic numbers should be based on supply and demand. What's wrong with that?"
Ken August, a spokesperson for the California Department of Public Health, explains that it's difficult to count the total number of medical marijuana users because patients are able to access medical marijuana through several different methods, including a doctor's note, a county medical registration card, and/or a state medical card.
"There's no requirement that a [medical marijuana] patient have a state-issued card. They are intended to be an assistance for law enforcement," August says.
Because the exact number of medical marijuana patients in California is unknown, placing a limit on dispensaries becomes a slippery game.
For example, more than 66,000 medical marijuana identification cards have been issued by the state of California since 2004. But that number pales in comparison to estimates by marijuana activists groups like NORML, which put the total number of patients in California anywhere between 750,000 to more than 1 million. The huge discrepancy exemplifies the problem with counting medical marijuana patients.
Garry South, a strategist for Angelenos for Safe Access, the consortium of dispensaries left off the city's list and supporting Ordinance F, agrees that capping dispensaries without knowing the exact number of patients is dangerous. He points to other provisions in Ordinance F -- such as mandatory testing of marijuana sold at each clinic for pesticides and toxins and a stipulation requiring clinics to have parking on their premises -- as proof that his puts the community first.
"Proposition D is a badly written piece of legislation, cut and pasted and put on ballot after E and F qualified," South says. "[Ordinance] F is better for the patients, as well as the public, because it was crafted with both patients and the public in mind."
Adding to the mystification, the three ballot measures each provide exemptions for certain medical marijuana growing operations. Proposition D would exempt grow operations of three or fewer caretakers and/or patients from regulation, while Ordinance F would exempt all "residential collectives."
And for Ordinance E, groups of five or fewer caregivers and/or patients who "cultivate or process medical marijuana" would be exempt.
"If you were thinking this through, under Ordinance E clinics could avoid regulation by shutting their doors after five people have entered," says Jane Usher of the Los Angeles City Attorney's office. "That's just another one of the quarks."
Even if more than one ballot measure passes, the initiative with the most votes will win. Despite this, Usher says her office expects a "tremendous volume of litigation" regardless of which ballot measure passes.
"If you were to ask me, from a legal standpoint, who has done the best job? It's the city's version," she says.