Where there's marijuana, there's fire

October 02, 2006

Kerry Cavanaugh, Los Angeles Daily News

Concerned about the soaring number of storefronts offering medical marijuana and the increase in neighbors' complaints, City Councilman Dennis Zine has called for a moratorium on new clinics until the city adopts rules governing the operations.

Zine envisions zoning rules that would prohibit dispensaries near schools, churches or liquor stores and regulations to ensure storefronts provide pot only to doctor-approved patients.

He hopes to get rid of the unsavory elements so neighbors won't be disturbed by the pot dispensaries and patients can safely buy marijuana for medicinal use as the voters intended when they passed Proposition 215 in 1996.

"We know there is a lot of misuse," Zine said. "We want to help the legitimate individual who needs it for legitimate purposes. We want them to not fear arrest."

Zine's proposed moratorium comes as the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has stepped up its raids of medical marijuana clinics, citing federal laws that make marijuana sales illegal. Just last week, agents seized 60 pounds of marijuana and related products from an office suite in Granada Hills.

The Los Angeles Police Department counted five marijuana dispensaries in the city last year. Now, there are at least 60, although no one really knows exactly how many dispensaries there are because they're not tracked by building permit or business license.

Dispensaries are usually storefronts that serve members who can show a county-issued medical marijuana identification card. Patients can smoke or eat marijuana products, like pot brownies, at the dispensary or take cannabis home.

LAPD officials said they're fielding more complaints from residents and business owners about marijuana smoke wafting from the shops, owners catering to teenagers and clients reselling their medication down the street.

But because dispensaries are legal under state law, police are unsure how to handle neighbors' complaints.

"We're kind of caught in the middle between existing law and the lack of clear guidelines on how medical marijuana dispensaries shall be operated within the city," said Deputy Chief Gary Brennan.

"It has created a situation whereby certain persons are operating dispensaries clearly in a way that goes beyond the intent of the law. But because the city hasn't developed specific guidelines it makes it difficult for field officers to know what they should and should not enforce."

Even medical marijuana advocates support permitting and regulating local dispensaries in order to legitimize the operations and their patients. They also hope that imposing city regulations on marijuana storefronts will discourage the federal raids.

"This is not the kind of thing that should be hidden or be done in the shadows," said William Dolphin, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access.

"I know that Los Angeles has been serious about considering the needs of patients. Councilman Zine understands it is the most seriously injured who need dispensaries."

A report released last month by Dolphin's group found that 26 California cities and seven counties - including Los Angeles County - have enacted dispensary regulations that generally require proper ventilation for smoke and an on-site security guard and prohibit clinics next to schools. Many municipalities found complaints and crime dropped once the rules were in place.

However, some 30 cities, including Pasadena, have banned dispensaries altogether, and more than 60 others have enacted moratoriums on new storefronts.

Councilman Greig Smith represents Granada Hills, where the North Valley Discount Caregivers were raided by the DEA on Thursday, and he would prefer to see no storefront at all in L.A.

"It's just a way to legalize marijuana," he said. "There are virtually no medical marijuana dispensaries in California that are only doing it truly for people in need. If they have to have a state law, I wish it was distributed through hospitals or medical clinics."

But Studio City resident Jean Fleming believes patients deserve an easy, legal way to get medicinal marijuana.

As a child, Fleming had polio and wore a partial body cast. Now, with post-polio syndrome and stomach cramps from a digestive system disorder, Fleming was approved for cannabis use to relax her muscles and ease the pain. She has an approved identification card and has checked out a few dispensaries, but hasn't yet purchased any medical marijuana.

"It doesn't make any sense to not to be able to go somewhere and get some help," she said. "Yet at any time, the feds can come in and arrest people."

On Thursday, the DEA seized 60 pounds of marijuana from the year-old North Valley Discount Caregivers, 15600 Devonshire St., after the agency and LAPD received complaints about odors, intimidating security officers, and clients who appeared to be selling marijuana outside the building.

An employee at North Valley Discount Caregivers said he couldn't comment on the raid.

In late August, the DEA also raided the Trichome Healing Center at 7100 Van Nuys Blvd. after an undercover officer was blocked from leaving after employees discovered he wasn't a legitimate customer. Employees said they thought he was planning to rob the dispensary.

kerry.cavanaugh@dailynews.com

(213) 978-0390



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