As a longstanding proponent of regulating the distribution of medical marijuana, Councilmember José Huizar successfully orchestrated the Los Angeles City Council’s unanimous vote in July to ban as many as 1,000 medical marijuana storefronts. As the Sept. 6 deadline to do that approaches, people on both sides of the medical marijuana debate are understandably apprehensive. In an interview with Eagle Rock Patch editor Ajay Singh, Huizar suggests that although the City Council’s ban is likely to be enforced, the City’s battle to regain control over marijuana distribution is “not finished by far.” Excerpts:
Patch: Everyone’s waiting for Sept. 6. What can we expect?
José Huizar: When the 6th comes around, I don’t think people should expect a whole, big prohibitionist-style era. We go out there and close down dispensaries. The fact of the matter is, given the resources, we have to go in phases, and it’ll be a strategic approach. The Council’s a policymaker—the legislature—and now it’s up to the administrative arm of the city to enforce.
Now, we understand we have this submission of signatures by [medical marijuana] advocates. If the signatures qualify, by our city charter, that means that our “gentle ban” is put on hold until the voters decide. But the intention of the LAPD and our administrative arm of our city, from what I understand, is to continue with some enforcement actions. And they will do it under state law or our “sunset clause” from our previous ordinance [under which medical marijuana dispensaries are not recognized as legitimate business entities]. Right now we have no ordinance, and according to state law all sales of marijuana are illegal. And I would say that a majority of these dispensaries are conducting sales of marijuana.
Absent a ban that has been put on hold, it’s our city attorney’s position that the sunset clause goes into effect, and that only provides for three or fewer people to collectively grown their own [marijuana].
So, whether we have the ban or not, the LAPD will continue with enforcement actions. Now, some people may say, why the need for the gentle ban in the first place? One of the things we needed to do as a Council was to send a clear message to the LAPD what the will of the Council was. They had heard from the Council different messages, different directions, and now it’s very clear. When the majority of us in a Council such as ours, which is fairly liberal-minded, say we want medical marijuana dispensaries banned, that sends a very clear message—that what we have now is simply not working in terms of providing access to patients who need [marijuana]. So, for all intents and purposes, we’re moving forward with enforcement actions. We’ll leave it up to the experts in the LAPD, but some things are under the works.
How will the verification of the signatures on the petition work? Is your office monitoring the count?
The City Clerk’s office verifies the signatures. That’s their job. We trust the city clerk as an objective office that does its job in the interests of the people, and they will verify whether the signatures qualify for the ballot or not.
Do they do a sampling of the signatures or do they verify every signature?
Our understanding—and you have to verify it with them—is that they do a sampling of signatures. But under some rules or conditions, they actually go through and verify all the signatures. Now, I’m not privy to that—I haven’t been briefed and don’t know what the city clerk intends to do in this instance. Whatever answer the city clerk gives us, we will be in a position to think about what we do next.
You’ve taken the lead on this issue and have gotten a lot of pro-marijuana folks angry at you. What motivates you to keep going?
Well, I became at the forefront of this [issue] because I am protecting neighborhoods like Eagle Rock. The reason I got involved in this in the first place is because I had a number of constituents from Eagle Rock stepping forward and saying that they cannot tolerate dispensaries causing problems in our neighborhood. I had mothers talk to me who said, “I’m walking my kid to school, and there are a bunch of teenagers smoking in front of these dispensaries and the smoke is in the air, and my kid shouldn’t be exposed to that.” The same mothers told me, “I voted for the Compassionate Use Act, and that’s not what I intended.”
So, I’m primarily responding to the Eagle Rock community—a portion of my district that has been highly impacted. But the fact remains that, the more I looked into this [issue] the more I realized that we as elected officials have a responsibility to protect the quality of life in neighborhoods. And when we feel that they’re being deteriorated because one interest is superseding the interests of other people, we’ve got to look at the laws and look at what makes sense.
In this instance—the fact that there are over 1,000 dispensaries in the city of LA, many of them causing problems in their neighborhoods, we have a responsibility to stand up and strike a better balance. On the one hand you have access to medical marijuana by patients—or alleged access to medical marijuana by patients—and on the other hand you have [calls for] protecting the quality of life in neighborhoods. I think there were a number of Councilmembers who felt like I did. It is difficult to stand up and be the face of [forces] protecting our neighborhoods when we’re going against a well-financed industry.
What do you say to the argument that has been put forward by a lot of people that it’s really difficult to grow marijuana if you’re a patient?
I agree. I think it is very difficult to grow marijuana if you’re a patient. If I, God forbid, become ill tomorrow and rely on marijuana, I wouldn’t know where to start to grow it. So, it is very difficult—but it is what the state law provides in order for us to give access [to marijuana]. I don’t agree with it. The state law as we have it is so flawed and has so many loopholes that the majority of people who are using these dispensaries are not patients but recreational users. If that’s what it is, let’s call in local government to control for the ill effects of these dispensaries.
I would urge advocates that they should take the same passion and energy that they have put onto the City Council and direct that to the state legislature. They have to fix the law there and find a better model for access to patients who truly need [marijuana].
Presuming things change and medical marijuana storefronts are shut down, do you eventually see LA being held up as a model for marijuana regulation done correctly?
Under the current circumstances, we did what we had to do to take control of an out-of-control situation. However, this was more of a stopgap measure for us. We intend to go back after the state Supreme Court rules on a number of cases that have been brought to its attention. Once the Supreme Court decides on these cases, we will be in a better place to come up with an ordinance to decide what we can and cannot do. This is not finished by far. We just have to get control of the situation.
An organization called Americans for Safe Access has announced a poster campaign against President Obama titled, “Can Broken Promises Lose an Election? 1 Million Medical Marijuana Patients Will Decide.” How do you think a possible ban in LA might affect the presidential election?
I’m not sure at this moment how a ban will affect the presidential election. I don’t think the ban per se will affect the presidential election. I think any further action by the federal government may or may not affect the presidential election. This was more of a localized decision [to shut marijuana storefronts]. And again, as I say, I support patients having access to medical marijuana. All I’m saying is that there’s gotta be a different way of providing marijuana to patients without negatively impacting neighborhoods as much as they have.
Now, in the future, most of what needs to get fixed is at the state level. The proponents who are targeting the federal level should also perhaps target the state level and try to fix this broken system.