Los Angeles Aims To Close Some Pot Dispensaries

The city of Los Angeles is home to nearly 1,000 medical marijuana dispensaries. Its desired target is fewer than 100, so the city wants to close hundreds of existing pot storefronts and create tougher guidelines on where other dispensaries can locate.

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Now, to a thriving drug business in Los Angeles: dispensaries for medical marijuana. So many pot clinics have opened in L.A., they now outnumber Starbucks and McDonald's combined.

NPR's Mandalit Del Barco has this story on the city's efforts to close some of the clinics and put a lid on future growth.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: In a converted house in North Hollywood, patients donate and share homegrown marijuana. They can also purchase pot in a variety of flavors.

Mr. FRANK SHEFTEL (Owner, TLC Collective): We have edibles, which are brownies and cookies and lollipops and crispy treats.

DEL BARCO: Frank Sheftel registered the TLC Collective with the city of Los Angeles a few years ago, back when medicinal marijuana dispensaries were fairly rare. Since then, hundreds of pot storefronts have opened across the city, and Sheftel agrees with city leaders who say there are too many.

Mr. SHEFTEL: There, no pun intended, does need to be a weeding out of this industry. I applaud what they're trying to do. I think that it's, you know, a little bit late. I think that they should have done this years ago.

DEL BARCO: Los Angeles now has nearly 1,000 shops offering medicinal marijuana to anyone with a doctor's recommendation. You see them advertising free samples and cannabis happy hours. Every week here, it seems, there's another grand opening of another dispensary with the familiar green cross logo.

Mr. ED REYES (Member, Los Angeles City Council): Like Starbucks, I mean, there's an outlet at every other corner.

DEL BARCO: L.A. City Councilmember Ed Reyes says this is not what most California voters had in mind when they passed a law allowing the compassionate use of marijuana. He's one of the council members working on an ordinance that could force hundreds of pot clinics to close.

Mr. REYES: Everyone is saying there's too many of these things out there. So we are limiting them in a very severe way. And we're trying to restrict it to the point where we can control where it's coming from and how it's being distributed.

DEL BARCO: The city council is considering capping the number at 70, but it's not clear how hundreds of dispensaries would be shut down or who would enforce the law.

Mr. CARMEN TRUTANICH (City Attorney, Los Angeles, California): In the interim, we're floundering for a policy.

DEL BARCO: L.A. city attorney Carmen Trutanich says Los Angeles has to find a way to get rid of marijuana operations that are in it for the money. But he insists this is not a crusade against medical marijuana.

Mr. TRUTANICH: The last thing that we want to do here in the city is deprive those people that truly need it as medicine from getting it.

DEL BARCO: Los Angeles has tried to put a lid on the dispensaries before only to get slapped down in court. This time, the city council is being especially cautious about the wording of any new limit. The main sticking point is a provision to keep pot stores at least 1,000 feet from homes.

Councilmember Bernard Parks says that could force marijuana operations into neighborhoods that already have enough problems.

Mr. BERNARD PARKS (Member, Los Angeles City Council): You move everything into the industrial area, well, where is the industrial area? The poor and the east side of the city of Los Angeles.

DEL BARCO: In the city's zeal to stop what he calls the green gold rush, medical marijuana advocate Terrik Tavich(ph) says L.A. could create a host of new problems.

Mr. TERRIK TAVICH: What we're going to see now is massive proliferation of black market sales, a lot more drug dealers. It's going to be a nightmare.

DEL BARCO: As it stands now, L.A.'s proposed ordinance would allow the clinics to be reimbursed for the cost of providing medical marijuana. But the county's district attorney, Steve Cooley, says he'll go after pot dispensaries that are selling over the counter, something that's still illegal in California.

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. So we are going to, over time, eradicate the illegal sales of marijuana that are occurring in dispensaries.

DEL BARCO: But where does all of this leave people like Mike Oliveri? The 25-year-old has muscular dystrophy and relies on marijuana to calm his stomach.

Mr. MIKE OLIVERI: I have to go to several different pharmacies if I want to find the right indica, the right sativa, the right hybrid, the right (unintelligible). Oh, this place has great sour diesel. You know, I literally have to shop around to get the best medicine. It's not like it's guaranteed.

DEL BARCO: If the city puts dispensaries out of business, Oliveri says he may go back to the way he used to get his marijuana.

Mr. OLIVERI: I had to rely on delivery service through some shady kids, through some other shady kid, risking, you know, getting arrested, paying more than I should have, and then I finally get the stuff that helps me eat.

DEL BARCO: L.A.'s city council takes up the issue again this week but might not vote on it till after the New Year. Meanwhile, pot shops in Los Angeles continue sprouting up like weeds.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

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