Marijuana Lovers Ready But City is Not

Recreational marijuana use will become legal in the city of Los Angeles in January 2018. Photo: Satish Krishnamurti / Flickr Creative Commons

With a looming January 1st deadline, the city of Los Angeles still hasn’t solidified regulations and rules regarding recreational cannabis usage.

California residents, who have had access to medical marijuana since 1996, voted to legalize recreational marijuana in November of 2016 by a margin of 56% to 44%.

The new law allows adults over 21 to possess, transport, buy, or gift marijuana in the amount of 28.5 grams—about the equivalent of 60 joints—or less for recreational use.

Retailers must first have a local license to sell marijuana before applying for a state license. Both are required to operate.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti appointed 26-year-old Cat Packer as the city’s executive director of the Los Angeles Dept. of Cannabis Regulation in August—though some outlets have given her the cheekier title of “Weed Czar”— and her new city department was formed in June to hammer out and implement the city’s new regulations.

But, in a November 8th interview with KPCC, Packer indicated there is still much work to be done to get Los Angeles recreational pot ready.

“There are so many different policy decisions and they touch so many aspects of our lives, from public safety to health to housing to employment,” she said in the KPCC interview. “It’s extremely significant here in Los Angeles because we will be the largest city to [legalize recreational marijuana].”

Repeated requests for an interview with Packer were not returned.

According to the KPCC interview, which aired on the radio station’s “Morning Edition,” these decisions include where cannabis businesses will be allowed and if on-site consumption will be available.

Tomer Grassiany, a cannabis activist and founder of The Art of Edibles, based in Los Angeles, has described the process as “a mess,” due to legislative overlaps between the state and the city.

City officials introduced an ordinance on the issue in June, only pertaining to the sale of recreational marijuana. However, shortly thereafter, the state introduced its own bill combining recreational and medicinal regulations, which has now forced the city to modify its version.

“That kind of really delayed everything,” Grassiany said, adding that the state’s policy is now being reworked again, after lawmakers recently received an environmental impact report on the issue.

According to Grassiany, any new changes in the state’s regulations could affect the city’s regulations as well, and additional delays could be caused by going back and forth over details.

The city’s most recent draft, it’s second on the issue, is dated September 22nd and was heard, but not finalized, by the Los Angeles City Council on October 31st.

The document includes requirements for cannabis businesses, including the hours they can be open and minimums for in-store security.

“[The city] is trying to keep it all moving, but they’re constantly getting comments from stakeholders and neighborhood councils,” Grassiany said, such as concerns over the smell of marijuana wafting over a neighborhood and how many retail outlets can sell there.

Medicinal marijuana in Los Angeles has a long history.

Some locations—designated with a green cross—started opening in the early 2000s and proliferated to over 1,000.

Hoping to curb growth, the city passed an ordinance in 2010 to reduce the number of medical marijuana dispensaries to 70 from the roughly 1,000 operating at the time, leading to a number of lawsuits from dispensary owners. That law expired in 2012.

By 2013, when voters approved a proposition to grant only 135 medical marijuana dispensaries “limited immunity”—meaning they would be recognized as legitimate businesses by the city, to the extent that federal law allows—there were an estimated 472 dispensaries in the city, down more than half from 2010’s numbers, according to media reports at the time.

Now, according to data from the Los Angeles City Controller, there are just over 1,000 medical marijuana outlets registered to pay business tax to the city, though city officials maintain fewer than 135 of those are operating legally under the voter-imposed regulations.

However, because those regulations only apply to medical marijuana dispensaries, come January, the remaining illegitimate dispensaries could feasibly become legal recreational shops.

As for where and how to buy recreational cannabis after January 1st, that remains uncertain.

The Los Angeles Times recently reported the Standard hotel in West Hollywood—a city which is further along than Los Angeles in finalizing its ordinance—will open a retail shop selling edible and smokable marijuana in its lobby. Plans include eventually expanding to the Standard hotel in Downtown Los Angeles, according to the story, after the city has all its regulations in place.   

What is clear, however, is cannabis will cost more in 2018, according to Paul Cambra, a spokesperson with the California Dept. of Tax and Fee Administration.

According to Cambra, both recreational and medical users should expect to pay a 15% state tax—called an excise tax and commonly imposed on such goods as gasoline, alcohol and tobacco—on cannabis products after January 1, 2018.

Additionally, recreational buyers must also pay California sales tax on top of that.

When the issue was on the ballot in 2016, various media reports estimated legalizing recreational marijuana use in California would net the state an additional $1 billion in annual taxes, while estimates for the city of Los Angeles came in at around $50 million.

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