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Missing Council Members and Other Frustrations as Long Beach Voters Grow Impatient for Action on Medical Marijuana

LONG BEACH, CA -- (Marketwired) -- 12/13/13 -- The Long Beach City Attorney's Office -- tasked back in September with drafting a new medical marijuana ordinance to replace the current ban -- attempted to seek further input from the City Council at last Tuesday's meeting, but was thwarted when the absence of three council members forced another postponement of the issue.

Missing from action were Vice Mayor/District 1 Councilmember Robert Garcia, District 6 Councilmember Dee Andrews, and District 3 Councilmember Gary DeLong. Vice Mayor Garcia, who had been present earlier in the evening for a special council meeting held to discuss the Draft Housing Element, left City Hall before the regular council meeting began. Councilmember Andrews was missing all evening. And even though Councilmember DeLong was present for most of the meeting, he was missing from his chair when the medical marijuana agenda item was called, and did not respond to calls for him to return to his seat.

Citing the importance of having all of the council members present for this issue, the remaining six council members voted 5-1 to postpone the item until Tuesday, December 17. The lone dissenter, District 5 Councilmember Gerrie Schipske, expressed her frustration by noting that all of the council members had known that the issue was on the agenda for Tuesday's meeting and yet the missing members obviously chose to be absent, with no guarantees that they would in fact be present for next week's meeting if the item was postponed to accommodate them.

That same frustration was echoed by Jeremy Coltharp, the lead petitioner behind a recent effort to qualify a medical marijuana measure onto the ballot. "When we submitted our petition with over 43,000 signatures from Long Beach voters, we made it quite clear to city officials that this is an important issue in Long Beach," he stated. "So it is extremely frustrating to face yet another delay because of missing council members, after waiting over two months already for the City Attorney's office to prepare a draft of the ordinance, which it hasn't even done yet since it is saying that it needs more guidance from the city council."

Coltharp pointed out that nearly one third of the signatures he had gathered came from Districts 1, 3 and 6. "That's nearly 14,000 voters just in those 3 districts alone that are saying they want responsible, regulated access restored back to Long Beach," he noted. "To put it into perspective, only 26,175 voters voted for Mayor Foster back in 2010. That means we got nearly 20,000 more voters than that saying they don't want a ban, they want something that makes sense, that's reasonable, that's safe. This is consistent citywide. Even in Council member Schipske's district, which is perhaps the most conservative area we have in the city, I was actually able to gather more signatures there than in any other district -- a full 16% of our signatures came from there alone. So it's crucial for all of the councilmembers to listen to and actually represent their constituents."

The city council seemed to do just that back on September 10 when it voted unanimously to draft a new medical marijuana ordinance to replace the ban. So while Coltharp's petition failed to be certified for the ballot by the Long Beach City Clerk -- a controversial move currently under review by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals -- it did at least appear to spur the city council into taking action. However, its direction to the City Attorney that dispensaries be limited to industrial areas only, and that there be two dispensaries per district, has made it an impossible task -- something that took that office over two months to acknowledge.

"As soon as the city council put those two parameters in, we knew right away that they would be fatal to the task, given how Long Beach is laid out. All we needed to do was look at the map that Planning had prepared back when the city was poised to grant permits to dispensaries under its old ordinance, and it was clear that all of the industrial areas are concentrated in just a few of the districts, meaning that most of the city would still lack safe access," stated Jina Nam, attorney for the Long Beach Collective Association who, along with Coltharp, advocates for having a limited number of dispensaries disbursed throughout the city in non exclusive-residential zones, far away from schools, parks and beaches -- and from each other. "Plus limiting (dispensaries) just to industrial zones discriminates against the seriously ill patients in wheelchairs or otherwise immobile who can't drive, who rely on public transportation to get around -- they would not be able to access industrial areas where there are no bus routes or areas located far away from bus stops. That's too ironic, especially since the CUA (Compassionate Use Act) was enacted to help the seriously ill to begin with," she added.

Ms. Nam and other advocates have since sought to point out these concerns to city officials and to try to address what additional guidelines should be provided to the City Attorney. "Some city officials have been really positive about having an open dialogue and show a willingness to hear all sides of this debate, and are truly committed to drafting something that is fair and reasonable and still prohibitive enough to avoid all the pitfalls associated with this industry," Ms. Nam noted. "But with some of the other officials, it has been an extremely frustrating process to even get their attention," she admitted.

Still, she and Coltharp remain hopeful that the city can still craft a well-balanced, well-drafted ordinance that will avoid the further need for another voter initiative. "In our initiative, we really tried to come up with a balanced ordinance that not only met the needs of the patients, but one that would support safe access and public safety throughout the City of Long Beach," explained Coltharp. "For this reason, we wanted to include a task force that would support input from the police department, city staff, surrounding neighbors, and citizens throughout the city, and have a stringent code of conduct of good practices. We now call on the City to adopt these measures into its ordinance. But if not, we are ready to go back to our 43,000 voters and beyond to put something on the next ballot if the 9th Circuit doesn't let our previous initiative move forward, or if the city fails to adopt something fair and reasonable. With over 70% of Americans supporting medical marijuana, this is an issue that is not going away. The City of Long Beach understands that not developing sound policy with strong and balanced regulation now will only result in further headaches and problems down the line. So we truly hope that sound leadership will prevail at the end of the day."

Jina Nam

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