Trouble Ahead for Medical Marijuana in California

December 11, 2009

Alison Stateman, TIME Magazine

California and Los Angeles have been pioneer sites for the expansion of the legal right to use marijuana. But local officials may now be at the forefront of curtailing some of that exuberance. If the Los Angeles city council has its way, the plethora of largely unregulated medical-marijuana facilities that have become a neighborhood blight in parts of the city may finally be brought under control. L.A. officials and medical-marijuana advocates estimate there may be as many as 1,000 such dispensaries. But in a preliminary vote on Tuesday, Dec. 8, the council indicated its intention to cap the number at just 70.

At the same time, the language of the medical-marijuana ordinance being debated is putting dispensaries under increased scrutiny. At the moment, the proposed ordinance would allow the facilities to accept monetary contributions for their services, a way of finessing the stipulation under state law that dispensaries remain essentially nonprofits. Currently all dispensaries stay in business by selling marijuana, a status that city attorney Carmen Trutanich and Los Angeles County district attorney Steve Cooley believe already violates the nonprofit requirement. According to their interpretation, recent court decisions have shown that marijuana collectives cannot sell the drug over the counter for a profit, although members can be reimbursed for the cost of growing it. "Whatever [the city council does] come up with, we will study very carefully, and if they're proposing anything that is inconsistent with California state law, we will ignore their act and enforce the law as we're sworn to do," Cooley tells TIME.

The proliferation of dispensaries has become a nuisance in many parts of the city. Says Jose Huizar, a councilman for District 14, who spearheaded the proposed regulation: "People have been taking advantage of us for too long, and we want to strike a balance between providing access to those who truly need medical marijuana and neighborhood concerns." Huizar's constituents have complained about decreased quality of life and increased crime in the areas around the dispensaries. "Within a 2½-mile radius and for a population of 40,000 people, we have 13 dispensaries operating, which is just ridiculous," says Michael Larsen, public-safety director of the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council, which is part of Huizar's district. "It's literally the wild, wild West."

Huizar says he came up with the idea of capping the number at 70 by allocating two dispensaries for each of the city's 35 community planning areas — because he felt that was what the cash-strapped city could adequately regulate. The dispensaries that remain, he says, will be charged fees to help cover expenses. "I thought we need to start as restrictive as possible, get control of this out-of-control situation, and then we can start loosening up if we realize there's a greater demand or adjustments we have to make to provide people with access," Huizar says.

Some medical-marijuana advocates say placing an arbitrary cap on the number of dispensaries is a faulty way of bringing a problematic situation under control. "It's the prerogative of local government if they want to establish regulations that limit the number of facilities in a city or county. We would prefer that the market, the patient demand, dictate the number of facilities that would exist, or that the quality of the operation did," says Kris Hermes, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, an advocacy group for prescription pot.

Patient registration in the state is voluntary, so it is impossible to get an exact count of how many patients utilize dispensaries. However, Hermes estimates that among the more than 300,000 patients statewide, tens of thousands reside in Los Angeles. "Now is the time to better evaluate what those caps mean. It may mean that demand is concentrated in a few spots in the city, and that can create its own set of problems and unintended consequences — perhaps lines out the door or lack of competition creating more of a monoculture. It's important to keep that competition going so that we can supply affordable medicine to patients and give incentives to operators to do their very best in terms of providing services to patients."

Unfortunately, the lack of resolution on the issue continues. The final city-council vote on the measure was delayed until next week to consider the impact of a last-minute addition to a provision barring dispensaries from operating within a certain distance of sensitive-use areas. Previously, sensitive-use areas included schools, public parks and places of worship, but the council went on to include private residences in the list and increase the operating distance from 500 ft. to 1,000 ft. Some opponents say the provision is not viable and will force law-abiding dispensaries to either relocate to largely remote, industrial areas of the city or shut down altogether. "Council members have to come to their senses and recognize how dramatic this is," says Paul Koretz, city councilman for District 5. If most dispensaries are zoned out of existence, there may be nothing left to adjust if and when L.A. revisits the issue.

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