Los Angeles Prepares for Clash Over Marijuana

Harborside Health Center, a nonprofit medical marijuana dispensary in Oakland, Calif., is looked upon as a model of how others could operate. (Photo by Jim Wilson)Harborside Health Center, a nonprofit medical marijuana dispensary in Oakland, Calif., is looked upon as a model of how others could operate. (Photo by Jim Wilson)There are more marijuana stores here than public schools. Signs emblazoned with cannabis plants or green crosses sit next to dry cleaners, gas stations and restaurants.

The dispensaries range from Hollywood-day-spa fabulous to shoddy-looking storefronts with hand-painted billboards. Absolute Herbal Pain Solutions, Grateful Meds, Farmacopeia Organica.

Cannabis advocates claim that more than 800 dispensaries have sprouted here since 2002; some law enforcement officials say it is closer to 1,000. Whatever the real number, everyone agrees it is too high.

And so this, too, is taken for granted: Crackdowns on cannabis clubs will soon come in this city, which has more dispensaries than any other.

For the first time, law enforcement officials in Los Angeles have vowed to prosecute medical marijuana dispensaries that turn a profit, with police officials saying they expect to conduct raids. Their efforts are widely seen as a campaign to sway the City Council into adopting strict regulations after two years of debate.

It appears to be working. Carmen A. Trutanich, the newly elected city attorney, recently persuaded the Council to put aside a proposed ordinance negotiated with medical marijuana supporters for one drafted by his office. The new proposal calls for dispensaries to have renewable permits, submit to criminal record checks, register the names of members with the police and operate on a nonprofit basis. If enacted, it is likely to result in the closing of hundreds of marijuana dispensaries.

Mr. Trutanich argued that state law permits the exchange of marijuana between growers and patients on a nonprofit and noncash basis only. Marijuana advocates say that interpretation would regulate dispensaries out of existence and thwart the will of voters who approved medical cannabis in 1996.

Whatever happens here will be closely watched by law enforcement officials and marijuana advocates across the country who are threading their way through federal laws that still treat marijuana as an illegal drug and state laws that are increasingly allowing medicinal use. Thirteen states have laws supporting medical marijuana, and others are considering new legislation.

No state has gone further than California, often described by drug enforcement agents as a “source nation” because of the vast quantities of marijuana grown here. And no city in the state has gone further than Los Angeles. This has alarmed local officials, who say that dispensary owners here took unfair advantage of vague state laws intended to create exceptions to marijuana prohibitions for a limited number of ill people.

“About 100 percent of dispensaries in Los Angeles County and the city are operating illegally,” said Steve Cooley, the Los Angeles County district attorney, who is up for re-election next year. “The time is right to deal with this problem.”

Mr. Cooley, speaking last week at a training luncheon for regional narcotics officers titled “The Eradication of Medical Marijuana Dispensaries in the City of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County,” said that state law did not allow dispensaries to be for-profit enterprises.

Mr. Trutanich, the city attorney, went further, saying dispensaries were prohibited from accepting cash even to reimburse growers for labor and supplies. He said that a recent California Supreme Court decision, People v. Mentch, banned all over-the-counter sales of marijuana; other officials and marijuana advocates disagree.

So far, prosecutions of marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles have been limited to about a dozen in the last year, said Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for Mr. Cooley. But Police Department officials said they were expecting to be called on soon to raid collectives.

“I don’t think this is a law that we’ll have to enforce 800 times,” said one police official, who declined to speak on the record before the marijuana ordinance was completed. “This is just like anything else. You don’t have to arrest everyone who is speeding to make people slow down.”

Don Duncan, a spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, a leader in the medical-marijuana movement, said over-the-counter cash purchases should be permitted but dispensaries should be nonprofit organizations. He also said marijuana collectives needed more regulation.

“I am under no illusions that everyone out there is following the rules,” said Duncan, who runs his own dispensary in West Hollywood. “But just because you accept money to reimburse collectives does not mean you’re making profits.”

For marijuana advocates, Los Angeles represents a symbol of the movement’s greatest success and of its vulnerability.

More than 300,000 doctors’ referrals for medical cannabis are on file, the bulk of them from Los Angeles, according to Americans for Safe Access. The movement has had a string of successes in the Legislature and at the ballot box. In Garden Grove, marijuana advocates forced the Highway Patrol to return 6 grams of marijuana it had confiscated from an eligible user. About 40 cities and counties have medical-marijuana ordinances.

There have been setbacks. In June, a federal judge sentenced Charles Lynch, a dispensary owner north of Santa Barbara, to one year in prison for selling marijuana to a 17-year-old boy whose father had testified that they sought out medical marijuana for his son’s chronic pain. The mayor and the chief of police testified on behalf of Lynch, who was released on bail pending appeal.

In September, San Diego police officers and sheriff’s deputies, along with agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration, raided 14 marijuana dispensaries and arrested 31 people. Bonnie Dumanis, the district attorney for San Diego County, said state laws governing medical marijuana were unclear and the city had not yet instituted new regulations.

She said she approved of medical-marijuana clubs where patients grow and use their own marijuana, but none of the 60 or so dispensaries in the county operated that way.

“These guys are drug dealers,” she said of the 14 that were raided. “I said publicly, if anyone thinks we’re casting too big a net and we get a legitimate patient or a lawful collective, then show us your taxes, your business license, your incorporation papers, your filings with the Department of Corporations. If they had these things, we wouldn’t prosecute.”

– Article from The New York Times on October 17, 2009.


1 Comment

  1. Makin' sure my loved ones are feelin' alright on

    ~THIS~ is what is ruining the prospect(s) for legal/ decriminalized marijuana.Doctors in the immediate L.A. area writing prescriptions for someone’s “hurt ankle”,”hangnail”,undefined “cramps”, and on.(See the Homie in the photo above)?Dispensaries, all to willing to $ell the herb.A poor example when the time is right and the time is NOW to do the right thing.When California eventually goes belly-up,and then, other states start to sandcastle collapse,and Uncle Obama decides that so many states are failing, it’s time for some of this “international goodwillingness” to surface in the form of ca$h being pumped into the dying state from elsewhere,namely foreign enemy countries and governments,can Canada be far behind?