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Los Angeles pot club battle heats up

LOS ANGELES — The fighters in the medical marijuana battle down south took a step toward the ring after supporters hoping to derail a ban on marijuana dispensaries filed 72,000 signatures with the city.

Well in excess of the 41,138 valid signatures needed by last Friday were collected by proponents with more than a week to spare, according to Rigo Valdez, vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770.

The union, which represents workers in about 52 of the 100 or so dispensaries that would be eligible for the limited immunity, is part of a larger coalition of medical marijuana advocates. Valdez, also the union’s director of organizing, told SFBay:

“We always collect enough to have a buffer in case signatures are thrown out. We feel that 72,000 does that for us. On an issue like this, 72,000 Angelinos want a solution, and this is the solution they want.”

If it qualifies for the ballot, their “limited immunity plan” would bar the city from prosecuting about 100 pot dispensaries that opened before Sept. 14 2007, the date the city first tried to place a moratorium on cannabis stores.

Shops would also need to pass yearly police and background checks, have no access to adjacent residential zoned lots, and not have closed for 90 days or more unless there was federal prosecution or relocation.

Qualifying dispensaries would also have 300 days to move to places a certain distance from schools and parks, among other areas. Collectives of five or fewer could grow and share marijuana.

Valdez said the Committee to Protect Patients and Neighborhoods, the pro-medical marijuana coalition that includes UFCW Local 770, waited until the deadline to submit signatures because there was hope a similar plan by Councilman Paul Koretz would accomplish the same objectives.

Koretz’s ordinance, though, is still going through City Hall, so proponents of the limited immunity plan turned in their signatures to get the ballot measure going. Valdez pointed out one key difference between the proposals:

“Our initiative mirrors the ordinance except the way (Koretz’s) is written doesn’t provide enough safe access. There’s too much regulation, so it would close down many more than is required to provide safe access for a city our size. We needed to do what we needed to do, which was remain on a timeline that would put this initiative on the May ballot.”

Koretz’s ordinance is expected to go before the City Council in early January, according to his planning deputy Christopher Koontz.

Los Angeles has as many as 1,000 pot dispensaries, with many close to schools, Koontz said. Koretz’s ordinance seeks to provide safe access to patients while at the same time protecting neighborhoods from crime and blight.

A third plan for pot clubs in Los Angeles would simply raise taxes on pot shops and require them to operate in areas away from schools. Proponents of this more liberal initiative have until Dec. 28 to collect 41,138 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Though the City Council overturned its own ban of medical marijuana dispensaries two months ago, history shows it’s an issue that reappears.

If enough valid signatures are counted for the limited immunity initiative, the City Clerk will present a report to the City Council, which will have 20 days to adopt the legislation, call a special election, or add it to the May 21, 2013 general election, said City Clerk spokeswoman Kimberly Briggs.

Valdez said medical marijuana advocates prefer that the City Council vote on it instead of waiting for the May election:

“That would save a lot of time and effort and more than anything, give a solution sooner rather than later and that is what most people are looking for – a solution now.”

Norma Schaffer, 60, a proponent of the 100-club initiative who said she uses cannabis for her spinal condition because other medications harm her liver, echoed the urgency:

“I just want everything to be decided, whether it’s City Council, the City Attorney, voters, whatever, but do it so the rest of us can get back to living the normal life.”

Valdez added he hasn’t kept up with similar battles in Northern California, known to some as the cannabis capital of the country, but that:

“I’m certain that as a state, we voted for compassionate care with Prop 215 and I think any effort to snub safe access in the state will be looked down upon by voters.”

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