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Lawsuit Over Marijuana Lab Raises Questions About Santa Monica's Pot Moratorium

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By Melonie Magruder
Lookout staff

October 23, 2012 -- While the City Council will consider Tuesday whether to extend a 45-day moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries within city limits for another 10 months, the city will also be fighting a lawsuit by one businessman who has been denied a permit to open a marijuana testing lab in Santa Monica.

Richard McDonald of Golden State Collective was denied a license to open a lab (such labs are frequented by marijuana users to test the purity and strength of different strains of pot) by the city last spring.

He appealed the denial to an administrative law judge, according to the City Attorney’s office.

An administrative law jurist operates as a neutral forum with the California Office of Administrative Hearings.

The denial was upheld, so McDonald has brought a suit against the city and a number of its employees in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

“We have a hearing in November,” Deputy City Attorney Tony Serritella said. “Mr. McDonald has filed suit asking for Administrative Mandamus to determine that the conclusion of the hearing officer was not correct.”

No permits have ever been issued in Santa Monica for such a business, or for medical marijuana dispensaries, even though Proposition 215, or the Compassionate Use Act of 1996 has been state law for 16 years. The law permits patients who hold a recommendation from a licensed medical doctor to purchase small amounts of marijuana to help with debilitating symptoms caused by a number of illnesses, including cancer, glaucoma, cerebral palsy, arthritis and other conditions of chronic pain.

Los Angeles City Councilmember Bill Rosendahl, whose district skirts Santa Monica, is currently suffering from cancer, and lobbied strongly this month to rescind the ban on medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles passed last summer, saying that he uses medical marijuana to alleviate the pain of his cancer treatments.

“Where does anybody go, even a councilman go, to get his medical marijuana?” Rosendahl pleaded passionately at this month’s City Council hearing.

While the Santa Monica City Council has voiced compassion for patients needing pot for their medical conditions, some members are leery of allowing dispensaries in the city because of the gray legal landscape they inhabit and concomitant problems that frequently arise with the dispensaries.

While medical marijuana is legal in California, it is still prohibited by Federal law and DEA agents have closed a number of facilities across the state, many times in response to complaints from residents living near the dispensaries.

Though dispensaries have strict guidelines for operation, including security measures, proper verification of doctors’ prescriptions and prohibition against wholesale purchasing or on-site consumption, some establishments do not observe the law and seem to function as retail centers for people using marijuana recreationally.

“I have been a pharmacist for 50 years and I believe that 98 percent of marijuana prescriptions held by people are phony,” Councilman Bob Holbrook said. “Pot is at least as harmful as tobacco, but more important, word that keeps coming down is that it is a precursor drug. I guarantee that anyone who does coke started with pot.”

While the National Institute on Drug Abuse says that a marijuana user is 104 times more likely to use cocaine than a person who never tries pot, a report commissioned by Congress in 1999 to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences concluded, “There is no conclusive evidence that the drug effects of marijuana are causally linked to the subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs.”

To Holbrook, the bottom line is simple. “How do you reconcile dispensaries that are legal in California with Federal law?” he asked.

The sentiment is shared by the manager of a dispensary that operates just outside of the city boundaries who would talk on record, but who wished to remain anonymous.

“It’s a competitive business,” the manager said. “But the bottom line is that patients must have safe access to this medicine, so many of us who operate legally and discretely would like to help the City Council write ordinances that would protect patients, but protect the city as well.”

This particular dispensary operates so discreetly, one must search for the facility. There are no loiterers or suspicious smoke nearby and proper identification is strictly observed. The manager said that, following the passage of Proposition M in the Los Angeles city election last year, his dispensary pays five percent tax on gross receipts.

“These tax receipts can represent significant revenue for the city,” the manager said. “L.A. spent $3 million fighting for ordinances that they ended up scrapping. Properly managed and with guidelines observed, I believe medical marijuana dispensaries can operate safely and effectively in Santa Monica.”

Ultimately, the dispensary manager believes that pot should be fully decriminalized, regulated like alcohol and tobacco, and taxed to benefit revenue-depleted municipalities, while providing local jobs.

“Marijuana is the largest agricultural crop in America,” he said. “The War on Drugs has cost the nation billions of enforcement dollars. Banning dispensaries will only send the business -- even legal business of providing medicinal marijuana -- underground and the Mexican drug lords get rich.”

For the time being, however, the City Council isn't anxious to change zoning laws or write new ordinances permitting dispensaries to operate within the city, according to Holbrook.

Tuesday's vote on the extension of the moratorium could mean it will be almost a year before the Council will have to consider the issue again.

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