L.A. Weighs Curbs on Medical-Marijuana Dispensaries

November 17, 2009

John R. Emshwiller, Wall Street Journal

The city council here is considering a controversial measure that seeks to rein in the estimated 1,000 medical marijuana dispensaries that have sprung up locally, most within the last year. Voters approved an initiative in 1996 to allow seriously ill individuals to use marijuana for medical purposes and a 2003 state law permitted the formation of collectives to distribute marijuana. But in Los Angeles, store-front marijuana dispensaries proliferated unchecked because the city council never set forth guidelines for how they should operate. Some dispensaries aggressively promote themselves with billboards and neon signs. Others have opened up near schools.

That has created a situation here that some now believe has turned into a public nuisance, or worse. Los Angeles` roughly 1,000 dispensaries compare with the roughly 30 in San Francisco, which set up rules for how they could operate. Law-enforcement officials contend that many of these dispensaries are nothing more than illegal, high-profit drug dens hiding behind the fig leaf of providing a medical service. Operators and their defenders contend that they are trying to provide a valuable service that the 1996 law legalized. Though the city council has been wrestling with the issue for some time, it is still struggling to find a remedy that would allow it to adequately regulate the dispensaries. The full council is expected to resume consideration of the issue next week.

Earlier this week, at a city council committee hearing, council members rejected a proposal from the Los Angeles City Attorney to ban over-the-counter sales at these dispensaries. Under the two California medical marijuana measures, "over the counter cash sales aren't lawful," says David Berger, special assistant city attorney. Mr. Berger said that if marijuana cooperative or collective, which is supposed to operated on a not-for-profit basis, needs to recoup costs from members it should do so through something like monthly dues.

However, the Los Angeles dispensaries routinely sell marijuana over the counter to individuals who have obtained a use document from a physician. Dispensary defenders argue that the state law allows sales. The Los Angeles City Attorney has a "misguided and erroneous interpretation of state law in that regard," says Kris Hermes a spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, an advocacy group on medical marijuana issues. Mr. Hermes says his group is prepared to sue the city if it tries to ban marijuana sales at the dispensaries.

City Councilman Ed Reyes, who has been active on the medical marijuana issue, says the council committee rejected a sales ban because it could make it impossible for qualified customers to obtain marijuana. "To create access, you must have a structure that allows dispensaries to survive," he says. Mr. Reyes favors an approach that would allow sales but set up "rigorous" inspection and auditing procedures to ensure that dispensaries are operating safely and on a not-for-profit basis.

"It's not like we're creating Starbucks for medical marijuana," he says. He adds that he believes the number of dispensaries needs to "shrink dramatically." The pending city ordinance also looks to regulate matters such as how close dispensaries can be to schools and similar locations.

Some local law-enforcement officials have grown frustrated with the situation and are vowing to take action. Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley says he won't tolerate dispensaries selling marijuana -- no matter what the city council says. Mr. Cooley, an elected official who doesn't report to the council, said in a statement Tuesday that "the sale of marijuana is illegal under state law" and the city council "has no authority to amend state law." Mr. Cooley, who is the chief state prosecutor in a county that includes Los Angeles and numerous other cities, has promised to bring criminal charges against dispensary operators breaking state law.

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