Medical cannabis patient Michael Oliveri smokes marijuana during a news conference in Universal City, Calif., last week. Medical marijuana advocates say they have enough signatures to place a referendum before voters that would overturn a ban on pot clinics in Los Angeles.
Medical cannabis patient Michael Oliveri smokes marijuana during a news conference in Universal City, Calif., last week. Medical marijuana advocates say they have enough signatures to place a referendum before voters that would overturn a ban on pot clinics in Los Angeles. Nick Ut/AP
Thursday was supposed to mark the end of medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles, after the city council approved a ban on them this summer. But patients and advocates have managed to halt the ban, and some dispensary operators are suing the city.
For years, Los Angeles has been a mecca for medical marijuana dispensaries. Anyone with a doctor's recommendation could stop in at chic storefronts offering cannabis-laced desserts or at the more underground clinics, labeled only with a green cross. Hundreds, maybe 1,000 of these pot shops popped up around L.A.
City officials tried to get a handle on the proliferation, with endless meetings, community hearings, police raids and lawsuits. Finally, the council decided "enough is enough," says City Councilman Jose Huizar, who wrote a bill outlawing all dispensaries. The council overwhelmingly passed the ban in July.
"It was getting way out of control," Huizar says. "A thousand dispensaries? Some neighborhoods have two per block, and young people have access. They go around the corner, they smoke it. Crime increases around these dispensaries, the traffic, the robberies."
Huizar's bill didn't outlaw medical marijuana, but it did call for a so-called "gentle ban," which would allow only three or fewer patients or their caregivers to grow their own.
At one pot clinic in L.A.'s Franklin Heights neighborhood, Egyptian meditation music mingles with the scents of indica, sativa and hybrid marijuana strains. Sitting in the front office is Marc O'Hara, the executive director of Patient Care Alliance Los Angeles. He scoffs at the idea that a gentle ban would provide access to medical marijuana.
"It's inconceivable to think that three homebound patients suffering from spasticity, cancer, autism could somehow pull together the wherewithal to produce medicine with the potency and the medicinal effect of what's grown by the best cultivators on the planet," O'Hara says.
His group is suing the city over its handling of medical marijuana clinics. His colleague Tiffany Wright, who says she's a cannabis patient, says the city's ban would drive legitimate users underground.
"I feel like we're almost being forced back into the dark ages," she says. "Nobody that I know who's a card-carrying patient wants to get their medicine from some suspect in a dark alley, that could potentially be contaminated with mold and pesticides, with no knowledge of who grew it or where it's been grown."
Facing an outright ban on medical marijuana shops, activists, dispensary operators and the union representing pot shop workers started a campaign, collecting tens of thousands of signatures calling for a ballot measure repealing the ban.
Activist Don Duncan, who heads the California chapter of Americans for Safe Access, says they had no choice because the city's policies have never been clear. Until now, he says, police have raided clinics at random and the city council has floundered with various policies.
"I look back and shake my head and think, 'What in the world has been going on in this city since 2005?' " Duncan says.
"We're not saying no regulation, just a free for all — nor are we saying we'll ban it outright. We're going to present the people of Los Angeles with a reasonable middle," he says.
If the city clerk verifies that the signatures activists collected are valid, Angelenos will vote on the referendum in March. Meanwhile, L.A.'s ban is officially on hold. The state Supreme Court has yet to decide whether cities can shut down clinics at all. And federal officials continue to crack down on marijuana enterprises of all kinds in California, all of which are illegal under federal law.