In California, Marijuana Dispensaries Outnumber Starbucks

The sale of marijuana for medicinal purposes has been legal in California for the past 13 years. Now, close to 1,000 dispensaries are selling marijuana in Los Angeles. Local authorities are talking about shutting down a lot of these operations. Host Michel Martin finds out more with N-P-R Correspondent Mandalit del Barco.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now to a very different story.

The sale of marijuana for medicinal purposes has been legal in California for the past 13 years. Now in Los Angeles, alone, there are close to 1,000 dispensaries currently selling pot. But local authorities are now talking about shutting down many of these operations. To talk more about this topic, we hear from NPR correspondent Mandalit del Barco. Over the next several weeks, we're going to be checking in with Mandalit to hear about all things West Coast, and she's joining us now from our studios at NPR West. Welcome, Mandalit. Welcome back.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Why are authorities concerned now?

DEL BARCO: Well, Michel, in the past year or so, the number of medical marijuana dispensaries, as you say, has exploded. There's estimates of 800 or 900 storefront shops. In fact, we have reported on NPR that in some neighborhoods, there are more medical marijuana dispensaries than Starbucks, if you can believe that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: For some people, they serve the same purpose, but…

DEL BARCO: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DEL BARCO: And they go by various names. There's usually a green cross to advertise them, and they have names like Herbal Wellness or Healing Centers. And you know, in my old neighborhood, in Venice Beach on the boardwalk, I took a little stroll past some of them this week. There's about eight of them. And there are literally barkers calling you inside.

Unidentified Man: You can get legal right here. The doctor is in. Would you like to see the doctor? No? Yes?

MARTIN: Well, that's interesting.

DEL BARCO: Yeah, Michel, you need a doctor's recommendation for medical marijuana - not a prescription, but a recommendation to get what they call a 215 card, a medical marijuana authorization, and some of these places have doctors on hand for you to do this.

MARTIN: Are these real doctors, though? Forgive me, are they actually licensed physicians?

DEL BARCO: I'm not quite sure, but this is what one barker told me.

Unidentified Man #2: If you're interested at all, it takes only a few minutes. (Unintelligible) use valid ID, and you have to report a medical issue to the doctor - and they're real MDs. They could be your actual check-up doctor as well. And our recommendations are good for a year. And…

MARTIN: What kinds of neighborhoods are these dispensaries found in? I mean, you know how in certain neighborhoods, community activists have started to complain that they're inundated with certain kinds of stores when they don't have other kinds of stores, for example. You know, they say they're inundated with convenience stores, fast food restaurants or liquor stores when they don't have a real grocery store, for example. So are these dispensaries - do they tend to be located in neighborhoods that often people consider marginal or not?

DEL BARCO: They are in all sorts of neighborhoods. The L.A. Times has a map of these dispensaries. L.A. is just dotted with them, and there are reports that many of them are located near schools and libraries and parks, and Michel, there's even an iPhone app that maps them out.

But I recently spoke to L.A.'s district attorney, Steve Cooley, who was warning that L.A. is going to be cracking down on these dispensaries.

Mr. STEVE COOLEY (District Attorney, Los Angeles County): The vast, vast, vast majority, about 100 percent of dispensaries in Los Angeles County and the city, are operating illegally. They're dealing marijuana illegally, according to our theory. So we are going to, over time, through civil abatement procedures and felony prosecutions by the DA's Office, we're going to eradicate the illegal sales of marijuana that are occurring in dispensaries.

MARTIN: Now, that's interesting. What do you think is motivating the crackdown in Los Angeles?

DEL BARCO: I think people just got alarmed that they're - suddenly we've found ourselves with so many of these dispensaries, and people started asking questions; like how did we get to have so many of them in L.A. And of course, they've been dealing with this issue in other parts of the state for several years now.

MARTIN: What about other parts of the state? Are officials in other parts of the state reacting in the same way?

DEL BARCO: Well, in the Bay Area, which has been dealing with this issue for years, they've decided to regulate the dispensaries. In Oakland, where I grew up, there are now just four medical marijuana dispensaries, and the operators of these places pushed for, and voted agreed, to tax them.

This is the first time that the sales are being taxed. And they say they want to be seen as legitimate business in Oakland and L.A. There's even, Michel, a trade school called Oaksterdam University - Oakland and Amsterdam, you get it?

MARTIN: I do now, thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DEL BARCO: Oaksterdam University, where students are taught the history and politics of marijuana. They have horticulture classes and classes on what's called cannabusiness, how to set up your own medical marijuana businesses.

MARTIN: So Mandalit, it seems like the attitudes about this really vary - where you are. I mean, how are state officials going to set policy, given the wide range of views on this?

DEL BARCO: Well, there is some concern about trying to regulate medical marijuana throughout the state, and there's now people who are not collecting signatures to put on another initiative on the California ballot for next year - to legalize all marijuana. It would allow anyone over 21 years of age to possess or grow marijuana for personal use, and it would allow local governments to decide whether or not to tax or regulate the sales of marijuana.

MARTIN: That is a campaign to watch. Any idea, nationally, how this may play out? I mean, some will remember that President Obama, in his wild and crazy youth, acknowledged that he did sample the weed at one point and that he did inhale.

DEL BARCO: President Obama, he said he inhaled frequently, and that was the point. When he was campaigning, his viewpoint was that medical marijuana is useful to relieve pain and suffering. He just didn't want to have, like, mom-and-pop stores, you know, opening up everywhere - which is what we've seen in Los Angeles - but he also said he didn't want to waste federal resources on raiding medical marijuana dispensaries.

So it'll be interesting what happens in the future in terms of all these dispensaries as they get more and more popularized.

MARTIN: NPR correspondent Mandalit del Barco. She joined us from our studios at NPR West. Mandalit, thank you.

DEL BARCO: Thank you, Michel.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Coming up, in the world of competitive sport, LeBron James has the benefits of size, speed and stamina. So do lots of other players. But he also had a much rarer advantage, the benefit of childhood friends.

Mr. LeBRON JAMES (Basketball Player): You know, we used the word friendship, but the real definition should be family. That's the real reason why we made it.

MARTIN: A new documentary about the king of basketball, LeBron James, and his high school buddies from Akron, Ohio, "It's More than A Game." That's coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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