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EDITORIAL GET IT RIGHT MEDICAL MARIJUANA RULES ARE TOO IMPORTANT FOR CITY TO DO WRONG Medical marijuana rules are too important for city to do wrong.

AFTER years of foot dragging, debate and public hearings, the Los Angeles City Council is set to vote this week on a package of regulations governing how medical marijuana dispensaries can operate in Los Angeles.

It's been a long time coming, and the council members ought to take care to make sure they get it right.

To their credit, city officials have constructed a comprehensive ordinance. It sets clear operating rules for medical marijuana collectives, including nonprofit status, security features, a late-night curfew and a 24-hour complaint line.

The ordinance also establishes a citywide cap of 70 dispensaries, distributed equally among the 35 community plan areas of the city (although it will grandfather in the 137 dispensaries registered in the city before the 2007 moratorium).

Too bad that the council didn't come up with such an ordinance three years ago when the dispensaries' business exploded or in 1996, when voters endorsed Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act. If it had, Los Angeles might not be littered with an estimated 800 to 1,000 pot shops, unevenly clustered in North Hollywood and certain other neighborhoods.

But there is a potentially worrisome aspect of the ordinance that could threaten the legitimacy of the rules: buffer zones.

In addition to on-site regulation, the city plans to regulate where the dispensaries can operate by establishing buffer zones. There are two proposals the council is wrangling with now: a 500-foot buffer for residential areas and a 1,000-foot zone around "sensitive use" sites, such as schools, parks, playgrounds, churches and libraries - essentially any place where kids congregate, though the rules clearly prohibit anyone under 18 from entering the dispensary.

The council must be careful to not be overly restrictive when it adopts buffer zones or it could find its ordinance legitimately accused of limiting access to medical marijuana. And what of the pot shop that operates within that small allowable space but finds a day-care center moving in nearby?

Of course, no one wants to find a dispensary next door to their home or across the street from a high school - just as they wouldn't want a liquor store. But regulating where a dispensary can locate is perilous in a city that is fundamentally a residential one. To compound matters, the "smart growth model" that city leaders favor at the moment encourages and celebrates mixed-use development - commercial, retail and residential all rolled up in one.

Further, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck himself doesn't see the dispensaries as a huge crime threat, noting that banks are more likely to be held up than pot dispensaries.

The city is doing the right thing - at last - by setting rules for how medical marijuana patients can get access in Los Angeles. But the council must tread carefully around buffer zones.

One dispensary owner who came to protest large buffer zones summed it up best: "It doesn't matter where you are, it matters how you run your collective." She's right.

Indeed, the citizens of Los Angeles have waited for the city to get control of pot shops for years. Now they deserve a solid, sane and fair policy that works for all Angelenos.
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Title Annotation:Opinionated/Editorial
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jan 17, 2010
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