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Amid changing state regulations and the possibility of a 2016 statewide ballot initiative legalizing medical marijuana, Garden Grove City Council members debated the effectiveness of the city’s current ban on medical marijuana dispensaries at a study session last week.

The study session wandered away from its original subject — new state laws on regulating medical marijuana — and toward the city’s ban in general. It was the first detailed discussion of the marijuana issue by council members on the dais.

Once home to the largest concentration of dispensaries in the county, Garden Grove has banned medical marijuana dispensaries from operating within city limits since 2008. But the police department loosened enforcement of the ban in 2012 while council members contemplated taking a regulatory approach, according to Police Chief Todd Elgin.

Since then, and especially after Santa Ana voters passed Measure BB, which allows permitted dispensaries to operate in a small area of the city, “dispensaries have flooded into Garden Grove,” Elgin said. “We’re issuing thousand-dollar citations but they seem to be just the cost of doing business, they’re just paying the citations.”

Currently, the police department visits 2-3 illegal dispensaries a month and conducts raids to “keep the pressure on,” but the approach would simply be “maintaining status quo” of 23 to 25 dispensaries in the city unless council members grant them permission to pursue court injunctions against dispensaries, Elgin said.

Cities across the county have struggled with how to deal with illegally operating medical marijuana dispensaries, lucrative businesses that often have the resources to pay fines and relocate when police departments crack down.

Mayor Bao Nguyen argued that the ban is not working and trying to double down on enforcement with injunctions would be “very costly.”

“Since the state of California is moving forward and there looks like there will be a ballot measure that will propose legalizing marijuana for legal and maybe even recreational use, [we should] take this opportunity to regulate and make sure we’re doing things right,” Nguyen said.

Councilman Steve Jones suggested the city wait for developments on the state level before acting.

“Expanding our current ban opens up a can of worms. Trying to fight something that might be legal by next year — my whole concern is I don’t want to throw millions down the tube [on an issue] that’s a federal versus state issue,” Jones said.

Nguyen argued the city should take the opportunity to regulate and tax dispensaries.

“To me this is an issue about resources, and the law allows us to generate resources from what is a lucrative business…that I imagine is helping to fund regulations in Santa Ana,” Nguyen said.

Councilman Phat Bui objected to Nguyen’s argument — likening it to using casinos to pad the general fund — and said the city needs to be more aggressive and eliminate the remaining dispensaries.

“I find that argument troubling. If our residents don’t want marijuana to flourish we should do everything we can to control it,” Bui said.

Councilman Chris Phan was concerned with whether enforcement efforts are pushing the department over their budget and asked about money confiscated during raids.

According to Elgin, if cash is seized as evidence, and goes unclaimed for 90 days, it goes straight into the city’s general fund. In the past four to six months, the city has confiscated about $300,000 from dispensaries that eventually went toward the general fund, Elgin said.

The mayor asked for a comprehensive staff report on the cost of marijuana enforcement efforts before the city council’s next regular meeting.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

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