L.A. Close To Curbing Pot Dispensaries

The Los Angeles City Council is close to passing an ordinance to limit the number of medical marijuana dispensaries. As many as 1,000 have cropped up since the state legalized the medicinal use of the drug, but the new ordinance will cut that number to 70, and require that they be at least 1,000 feet away from schools, parks and other public gathering spots.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Here in L.A. the city is on the verge of adopting sweeping new restrictions on medical marijuana clinics. The city council laid the groundwork yesterday. It gave tentative approval to an ordinance that could put hundreds of pot clinics out of business.

NPR's Mandalit Del Barco has been covering this story. She's here now with the details. And the final vote, Mandalit, is next week, right? But it's really, for all intents and purposes, a done deal, right?

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: That is what it looks like. You know, it's been almost five years since L.A. City Council began talking about regulating the proliferation of medical marijuana dispensaries in the city. And they've been debating the wording of the new rule for two and half years.

But, you know, Madeleine, Californians voted to allow the compassionate use of medical marijuana back in 1996. And anyone with a doctor's recommendation, not a prescription, but a written recommendation, can use pot in the state. And they're supposed to either grow it themselves or get it from dispensaries, which are supposed to be not-for-profit collectives.

But there's concern that many of them are making a profit. And three years ago, L.A. put a moratorium on dispensaries after 186 of them registered with the city. But even despite that ban, hundreds of pot dispensaries have opened and now you see them everywhere in L.A. In some neighborhoods there are more cannabis clubs than Starbucks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: Okay. So, they're putting in some new restrictions and what do they look like?

DEL BARCO: Well, the L.A. ordinance puts a cap on the number of dispensaries at 70. But there are some that registered with the city a few years ago and are still in business, and they'd be allowed to continue operating. So there would be far more than 70. All the others, though, would have to close down.

And under the new city rules, dispensaries would have to be located at least 1,000 feet away from places where children congregate, like schools and parks and libraries, and there'd be a buffer zone around hospitals, churches, temples, rehabilitation centers. And since they're supposed to be not-for-profit collectives, the dispensaries would be audited every year. They'd have to close down by 8 p.m. and no one would be able to consume medical marijuana on the premises. And because they're often magnets for thieves, they would have extra security. They say this ordinance would be one of the toughest in the state.

BRAND: And, Mandalit, all these restrictions that you mentioned, I've heard that, in effect, a lot of these dispensaries say, well, we won't be able to operate in the city at all. So, in effect, we're going to have to shut down. Even though we're not being banned explicitly, we won't be able to operate.

DEL BARCO: Yeah. They say there might be almost no place left for these legitimate dispensaries, just maybe a few places in the industrial areas of the city. You know, there aren't that many spots more than 1,000 feet from these schools or parks or libraries. And some people are afraid that the city council's law will just create a huge black market and a lot more underground drug dealers.

BRAND: And what is the likelihood that there will be a legal challenge once this law is passed next week?

DEL BARCO: Well, Madeleine, the city did try to put a lid on medicinal pot before, only to be slapped down in court. So this time the council tried to be cautious about the wording of any new limits. But already dispensary operators are planning to challenge this new ordinance with a lawsuit or even a referendum that would force the city council to put it before the voters.

And because of the city's tight budget, it could be very difficult to pay for auditors and for police to actually enforce the new rules. But regardless of any of these restrictions, the county's DA does plan to go after dispensaries that are selling over the counter, those that are illegal.

BRAND: Thanks, Mandalit.

DEL BARCO: Thank you, Madeleine.

BRAND: That's NPR's Mandalit del Barco reporting on L.A.'s impending crackdown on medical marijuana clinics. And she joined us here at NPR West.

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