LA set to vote on shutting down marijuana dispensaries

November 29, 2009

Frank Stoltze, KPCC

City Councilman Ed Reyes has led the charge to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries in L.A. "I've been doing this for two years. It's about time we move forward," said Reyes.

"We're never going to have the perfect ordinance. But we need to start cleaning up our city. We need to start shutting down those establishments that are there illegally."

Authorities say some of the dispensaries are little more than drug dealers. Neighbors say others create parking problems.

While Reyes wants to see most of them close, he supports a permissive approach to dispensaries – one that would allow them to sell marijuana to their members who have a doctor's recommendation.

Chief Assistant City Attorney William Carter told the council that scheme would be illegal.

"There's nowhere in the compassion use act or the medical marijuana protection act that allows for the sale of marijuana – whether it’s for sale for profit or for nonprofit," Carter said.

David Berger of the City Attorney's Office has said dispensaries should be more like collectives – the word used in the original medical marijuana initiative passed by voters nearly 15 years ago. He's said they should be patients planting pot together in their backyards.

"This sort of hypothetical communal garden that the city attorney is envisioning just doesn't work," said Don Duncan of Americans for Safe Access.

Duncan argues state law allows members of a collective to do nothing more than give money – essentially to buy their pot. Duncan and the city attorney concede the issue likely will end up in court.

In addition, L.A. County District Attorney Steve Cooley has vowed to launch a crackdown on any dispensary that sells its medical marijuana.

In its new ordinance, the L.A. City Council is also considering capping the number of pot dispensaries in Los Angeles at as low as 70.

"This number 70 that's envisioned is simply too small," said Duncan. "What we're going to wind up with in that model is a lot of really large medical cannabis collectives that are serving many patients and they're going to have a more serious impact on the neighborhoods.”

On another issue, Duncan supports a proposal to keep pot shops away from schools, churches, and parks – but thinks the distance should be 500 feet instead of a thousand.

Thorny issues abound. The council wants to make sure dispensaries are nonprofit. Councilman Reyes' proposal includes mandatory auditing to address this. But what about where the pot comes from? Can it come from the rich fields of Northern California, as much of it does now?

"There's going to be flexibility on where they grow it, how they grow it," said Reyes. "But we also want to know where they get it from and that’s part of the auditing process."

Outside a medical marijuana dispensary called Hyperion Healing in Silver Lake, patients worried new regulations could restrict their access to pot.

One 46-year-old private investigator and self-described conservative Republican asked not to be named. Dressed in a white shirt and tie, he said pot provides him relief from stress and insomnia.

"Type of work I do, I gotta remember a million-and-one things and I've got to stay focused on all this stuff and it helps me at the end of the day just wind down," he said. "I mean after I eat dinner and the kids are in bed, then it's time for me."

Antonio Gracia, 19, spins up to the dispensary on his bicycle. He works at a downtown toy factory.

"My prescription is for stress," he said.

Asked what's stressing him out, Gracia said "probably because I've been smoking medical marijuana all my life so when I don't use it, I stress."

The ordinance under consideration by the Los Angeles City Council would not address the issue of who should receive a doctor's recommendation for medical marijuana.

That's an issue for state lawmakers and the California Medical Association.

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