LB medical marijuana task force to take on challenges of new ordinance

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Publisher’s note: This story has been updated from the original version published in our newspaper.

CJ Dablo
Staff Writer

Courtesy City of LB This updated Long Beach map presents possible areas where medical-marijuana businesses could operate if an ordinance is ever passed by the City Council. The latest ordinance draft to regulate marijuana dispensaries and their corresponding cultivation sites includes restrictions against these businesses from operating near parks and schools. Under the proposed ordinance draft, dispensaries and cultivation sites could be located in areas marked light blue and dark blue (Industrial). Last year, the Long Beach Planning Commission recommended that dispensaries— but not cultivation sites— also be allowed to operate in areas marked red (Community Automobile-Oriented Districts and Regional Highway Districts). In addition, although the current ordinance draft does not restrict marijuana businesses from operating near licensed childcare businesses and libraries, this map highlights 1000-foot buffer zones around these particular facilities.

Courtesy City of LB
This updated Long Beach map presents possible areas where medical-marijuana businesses could operate if an ordinance is ever passed by the City Council. The latest ordinance draft to regulate marijuana dispensaries and their corresponding cultivation sites includes restrictions against these businesses from operating near parks and schools. Under the proposed ordinance draft, dispensaries and cultivation sites could be located in areas marked light blue and dark blue (Industrial). Last year, the Long Beach Planning Commission recommended that dispensaries— but not cultivation sites— also be allowed to operate in areas marked red (Community Automobile-Oriented Districts and Regional Highway Districts). In addition, although the current ordinance draft does not restrict marijuana businesses from operating near licensed childcare businesses and libraries, this map highlights 1000-foot buffer zones around these particular facilities.

Despite lawsuits and controversy over the years, Long Beach city officials are still pressing forward in a quest to find a way for medical-marijuana dispensaries and cultivation sites to co-exist with residents and businesses. This time, a new community task force will soon take its turn to wade through the logistics of an ordinance that could offer the chance for these marijuana businesses to operate legally in Long Beach.

Back in February, the City Council passed a resolution to establish the Medical Cannabis Task Force, a group of individuals who will provide community input on the latest draft of the ordinance to regulate dispensaries and cultivation sites.

The group is slated to include 18 members, and, provided there is a quorum, they are scheduled to meet at 6pm on April 1 at the City of Long Beach Gas and Oil Department at 2400 E. Spring St.

Background of medical marijuana’s history in Long Beach

Regulating medical cannabis in Long Beach has not been an easy task for city officials. There had been an ordinance on the books back in 2010, but no permits were ever issued to dispensaries. The City faced about 34 lawsuits over the years, and Long Beach Deputy City Attorney Kendra Carney confirmed that most of the cases involve dispensary owners or landlords who leased to these medical-marijuana businesses. She estimated that 14 of these lawsuits are still ongoing.

The City Council eventually banned medical marijuana dispensaries in 2012, but they still asked the Planning Commission to review the original ordinance. Last October, the Commission recommended significant changes to the proposed law and offered its own ordinance draft, which will eventually be reviewed by the Council.

New issues

Last month, the Council said they expected the task force to present ordinance recommendations to the Council by April. This may be a daunting task, depending on how well versed the task-force members are on the ordinance. In addition, there are numerous questions that have not been answered, and many of them won’t be answered before the group begins to meet.

On March 24, City Manager Pat West released a lengthy memo to the Council, detailing 34 issues raised in the Feb. 10 study session and the staff analysis of these topics. West grouped the issues into four separate categories: enforcement/regulation, legal, permitting/zoning and revenue management. He acknowledged in his memo that research needed for many of the issues would not be completed until June 1.

Besides those issues, there may be future legislation for marijuana for non-medicinal use. Long Beach city officials acknowledged in their study-session meeting in February that there may be a ballot initiative in 2016 that could offer California voters a chance to legalize recreational marijuana throughout the state.
In an interview, Carney was asked if that potential legislation could affect the City’s ordinance. The deputy city attorney acknowledged that it is “hard to predict” how the City will respond if recreational marijuana is legalized.

“[However], the State Supreme Court has already determined that cities have the ability to ban or regulate these facilities,” she added. “So it’s likely that should the City choose to adopt this new ordinance now for medical marijuana, the City would apply something very similar to regulate recreational marijuana as well in the future.”

The newest map highlights potential zones where dispensaries and their corresponding cultivation sites could operate. Land-use restrictions are outlined in the ordinance draft. The Council long ago agreed that businesses should not be allowed to operate near parks and schools. Under the proposed ordinance draft, dispensaries and cultivation sites could be located in industrial areas. The Planning Commission additionally recommended that dispensaries–but not cultivation sites–should also be allowed to operate in certain commercial zones (see map). Many of these industrial and specified commercial zones are located in north Long Beach.

At February’s study session on medical marijuana, 9th District Councilmember Rex Richardson requested staff to create a revised map that would highlight additional possible buffer zones that could further restrict the number of marijuana businesses in the area. The modified map highlights 1,000-foot buffer zones around licensed childcare facilities and libraries.

Task-force selection process
Each councilmember named two individuals to represent the district. Since the 4th District has not yet elected a new representative, the Council agreed in February to allow that district’s representatives to be appointed by Sharon Weissman, the 4th District’s acting chief-of-staff. Weissman also works as a senior adviser in Mayor Robert Garcia’s office.

The Council agreed in February that the districts’ councilmembers had sole discretion to appoint their two individual choices without input from Mayor Garcia. A few task-force members acknowledged in interviews with the Signal Tribune that they did not go through a formal application process before councilmembers appointed them to the task force, however, after the members were confirmed, the City did require a vetting process that included a background check. A few task-force members said they also completed an ethics-training course. Many of the group members live in Long Beach, but the councilmembers weren’t required to appoint representatives who live in their Council districts.

Task force membership

The following individuals have been named to the City of Long Beach Medical Cannabis Task Force: 1st District: Larry Bott and Tony Rivera; 2nd District: Adam Hijazi and Jack C. Smith; 3rd District: Denise Mester and Sarah Sangmeister; 4th District: Joe Sopo and Jan Ward; 5th District: Floyd Curry and Marc R. Greenberg ; 6th District: Greg Lefian and Nick Morrow; 7th District: Aaron Herzberg and Larry King and; 8th District: Charlyn Bender and Marc Rothenberg; 9th District: Kasia McDermott.

Ninth District Councilmember Richardson said in an email to the Signal Tribune that he is looking to name a second person to represent his district on the task force. That individual will replace Steve Neal, who had originally been appointed to the group. Neal is the former 9th-district councilmember.

Marijuana advocates

Members of the group come from a variety of backgrounds, and there are several individuals on the task force who are enthusiastic supporters of medical cannabis. Hijazi and Lefian are members of the Long Beach Collective Association, an advocacy group for medical marijuana. Morrow said he is a former deputy sheriff and now works as a private detective and an expert witness on cannabis. In an interview, he described himself as a proponent of medical-marijuana patients. King said he formerly owned a dispensary in Long Beach and now serves as a consultant for other medical-marijuana businesses in Illinois, Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Although potential dispensary owners would have a financial stake in the medical-marijuana ordinance, there isn’t a problem for them to serve on the task force at this time, according to Assistant City Attorney Michael Mais. In an email to the Signal Tribune, he said that the City abides by the rules of the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC). He acknowledged that with many boards and commissions, an individual with a “potential financial interest” that could create a conflict of interest might have to recuse himself/herself.

“However, for the FPPC rules on financial conflicts to apply, the involved person must first meet the definition of a ‘decision maker’ under the [Political Reform] Act,” he added. “In the case of single purpose (ad hoc) purely advisory groups such as the medical-marijuana task force, the ‘normal’ conflict rules do not apply because members of such groups do not meet the definition of ‘decision maker’ under the Act, provided that they are only making advisory determinations and exit for a limited time or purpose. With that background information, there is nothing in the Act that would create a legal conflict of interest for a person to both serve on the task force and also have a financial interest in a potential dispensary or dispensary site. If hypothetically, the task force was to exist for some purpose beyond the initial task assigned to them by the Council, there is a possibility that the ‘normal’ conflict rules would then apply.”

A significant number of the task-force members are trained in the legal profession. Mester, Sangmeister, Greenberg, Herzberg, Rothenberg and Bender have all been identified as attorneys, but they do still represent a variety of backgrounds.

Mester is a mother and serves on a local PTA board, and Sangmeister formerly served as a parks and recreation commissioner, said Julie Maleki, chief of staff for the 3rd District. Greenberg has worked with the Long Beach Police Department’s civilian-review committee and had lived near a marijuana facility that had been operating illegally, said Christine Schachter, chief of staff for the 5th District.

Herzberg is the founder of CalCann Holding Corporation. According to that company’s website, Herzberg owns “interests in dispensary, cultivation and production facilities in California and Nevada,” and he has worked for marijuana businesses to help them acquire licenses and conditional-use permits. Bender works for the district attorney’s office in Orange County.

Rothenberg has a law practice in Bixby Knolls, and he isn’t the only local businessman in the group. Rivera and Sopo also own businesses in the city. Sopo is a real-estate agent.

Bott, Smith, Sopo, Ward and McDermott are Long Beach residents who have been involved in neighborhood associations and/or other community-advocacy groups.
Curry, also a resident of Long Beach, is an LAPD SWAT officer who has dealt with the marijuana issue, according to Schachter.

Although many of them have seen each other at previous meetings on medical cannabis, next week’s meeting will be the first time these individuals will have gathered as a group. Since the city manager’s office stated that several major issues will not be fully addressed until June 1, it is unknown when the City Council expects to schedule the ordinance on its agenda. ß