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Most pot dispensaries could find way to impoverished areas

City News Service | 11/9/2017, 3:58 p.m.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors this week previewed part of its..

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors this week previewed part of its approach to marijuana regulation and raised the possibility that it may seek to impose more restrictions on alcohol sales. Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas recommended a public hearing process for licensing marijuana dispensaries that considers area alcohol sales, crime rates and high school dropout rates, among other factors.

Ridley-Thomas raised concerns that dispensaries could end up concentrated in low-income neighborhoods, with negative consequences. Existing medical marijuana dispensaries mapped by county staffers showed dense concentrations in poorer communities countywide.

“It is fallacious in my view to assume that this is an economic bonanza of some sort that doesn't have far-reaching implications,” Ridley-Thomas said, adding that it was not just an issue of economics or public safety. “It is a conversation, in a fundamental way, about public health.”

Just as permits for construction projects can require developers to take steps to reduce traffic, noise and other negative impacts, Ridley-Thomas suggested that cannabis licenses could carry conditions aimed at offsetting problems the outlets create.

His motion—unanimously approved—also includes a grant program to “bolster positive youth development programs, substance use disorder programs, drug prevention programs and community development in high-need areas, prioritizing those areas most negatively impacted by health disparities caused by alcohol businesses and substance use.”

Department of Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told the board that there are “enormous differences” in health outcomes—including infant mortality—“based on where a person lives, works, plays and ... on the color of their skin.”

Ferrer said the aim should be to balance health needs with an emerging business in a way that considers the unique needs of various communities. Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said any regulatory framework should be compared with licensing for alcohol sales.

Regulators have historically “overpunished marijuana and underpunished alcohol,” Kuehl said. She said she sees them as equivalent, as both are “mind-altering, potentially addictive, but not necessarily a gateway drug.”

The county's Office of Cannabis Management has been holding a series of public “listening sessions.” Countywide Coordinator Joe Nicchitta said residents' concerns focused on youth access and exposure to marijuana, security and safety around dispensaries, and the county's ability to enforce regulations.

The Office of Cannabis Management has developed 64 recommendations for dealing with the legalization of recreational marijuana and a detailed plan for implementing those recommendations is expected in either December or January.

The county continues to struggle with enforcing laws already on the books that currently ban marijuana dispensaries in unincorporated areas, with storefronts opening up in new locations at a faster rate than illegal shops are shut down.