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Battle over marijuana dispensaries continues in L.A.

  • The Sacramento Bee
  • Published Tuesday, August 7, 2012, at 6:03 a.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, August 7, 2012, at 6:03 a.m.

— Five years ago, the Los Angeles City Council thought it had reined in an explosion of pot businesses across this sprawling metropolis with a moratorium against new medical marijuana dispensaries. Hundreds more opened.

Now Los Angeles, with 762 documented dispensaries and scores more thought to be operating under the radar, has approved an outright ban on storefront marijuana providers. The city also enacted a controversial plan for medical marijuana users to grow their own pot.

But many question whether Los Angeles – where Snoop Dogg blazes a fatty joint in ads for "free bong hits" at Hollywood's KushMart and City Compassionate Caregivers near downtown invites patrons to "medicate" in its 3-7 p.m. "happy hour" – has finally figured out how to control its marijuana landscape.

While hundreds of dispensaries have closed elsewhere in California amid local crackdowns, federal raids and threats of prosecution, the City of Angels flutters in an alternative cannabis universe.

Los Angeles has become the morality play for medical marijuana and a failure of city regulation. It has lost key court rulings in favor of dispensaries and in some cases failed to enforce local standards that withstood legal challenges.

After its ineffectual 2007 moratorium, the city in 2010 passed a medical marijuana ordinance setting a limit of 186 dispensaries. Scores of stores shuttered, and the city threatened legal actions against 450 others that refused to close. But then a judge's order froze the ordinance. And another city effort to stem pot operations – holding a lottery to set a limit of 100 dispensaries – drew a slew of lawsuits.

Even as Los Angeles won in court – such as a 2011 ruling affirming the city's right to restrict dispensaries – it failed to stop new pot clubs from opening, often with retail licenses not specifying that they sold.

Some of Los Angeles' oldest and most reputable cannabis establishments blame city leaders for the chaos.

"Six years ago when we yelled and screamed for regulation, they didn't have the stomach for it," said Yamileth Bolanos, a cancer survivor who runs the Pure Life Alternative Wellness dispensary on La Cienega Boulevard. "And now because they didn't do anything, every greedy (expletive) and their mama came to L.A." to open dispensaries.

"Maybe the city wanted it to get so out of control that they had to ban it … ," Bolanos said. "Maybe that was the evil plan to begin with."

Los Angeles was one of the last major cities in California to try to tackle the spread of cannabis outlets, which now flourish in much of the city. As many as 250 dispensaries sprouted on Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley. Pot leaf signs greet traffic on Melrose Avenue near Hollywood.

At a recent council meeting, Yolanda Rodriguez, a mother of small children from the Boyle Heights community, complained about pot smells from cannabis clubs that smothered the sweet bread scents of the neighborhood panadería.

Councilman José Huizar, who represents Rodriguez's East Los Angeles district, led the move for the dispensary ban. He argued the city had dithered too long, creating an intractable challenge.

"If we wait any longer" to close stores en masse "we will continue to chase our tail," Huizar said.

The City Council voted 14-0 last month to ban dispensaries and use some of the $2.5 million the city has collected in voter-approved medical marijuana taxes to mail closure orders to cannabis clubs and pursue legal actions to shutter them.

Council members also approved a motion to consider future exemptions that may allow dozens of dispensaries opened before the 2007 moratorium to stay in business.

Advocates say there are hundreds of thousands of medical marijuana users within the Los Angeles city limits. Under the ban, they can cultivate or share cannabis in groups of three or fewer people. The city plan will let hospices, home health care agencies and primary caregivers provide marijuana to sick people who have a doctor's recommendation. It's not clear who would grow that marijuana.

"That will never work," said Brian Berens, whose Westside Green Oasis successfully sued the city to stay in business in 2009 and has no intention of closing now. "Nobody in their right mind – for or against marijuana – can think that is the right way to go."

Brennan Thicke of the Venice Beach Care Center dispensary said the plan means his 500 regular patrons would have to form 167 marijuana-growing groups, spending $4,000 or more each for lights and indoor gardens and driving landlords crazy with wiring and irrigation.

Councilman Dennis Zine, who championed the city's 2010 dispensary ordinance, wonders whether Los Angeles can succeed in its latest attempt to rein in its teeming cannabis industry.

"Whichever way we go," Zine said, "there will be another cycle of lawsuits."

The city's latest efforts come amid continuing confusion over the rights of local governments and marijuana providers. While medical marijuana has been legal in the state since 1996, state legislators have provided only vague guidelines on how it can be distributed.

The state Supreme Court is reviewing four cases involving conflicting local ordinances in cities that have sought to license or ban dispensaries.

Meanwhile, California's four U.S. attorneys charge that marijuana outlets are profiteering in violation of both federal and state laws. In counties across the state, including Sacramento, U.S. authorities have raided dispensaries or scared hundreds out of existence with letters threatening landlords with prosecution.

Both Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley and City Attorney Carmen Trutanich have taken aggressive stances, declaring that all marijuana sales at dispensaries are illegal.

But that didn't stop the downtown Vermont Caregivers from staging its "grand opening" in July, offering a "premium joint + bong" with purchase of an ounce of pot.

Nor did it dissuade the MedStar dispensary from opening recently on Melrose Boulevard in a storefront adorned with a rainbowed-colored mosiac of cannabis leaves, medical crosses and glistening stars.

Danielle Noah, MedStar's assistant manager, said marijuana stores are woven into the tapestry of Los Angeles "and it's completely unrealistic to try to put a ban on it."

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