How Many L.A. Pot Clinics Will Survive Crackdown?

Jars full of medical marijuana are seen at Sunset Junction medical marijuana dispensary in Los Angeles in May. i i

Jars full of medical marijuana are seen at Sunset Junction medical marijuana dispensary in Los Angeles in May. As of the end of September, the dispensary was still open. Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Jars full of medical marijuana are seen at Sunset Junction medical marijuana dispensary in Los Angeles in May.

Jars full of medical marijuana are seen at Sunset Junction medical marijuana dispensary in Los Angeles in May. As of the end of September, the dispensary was still open.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

In Los Angeles, medical marijuana dispensaries once outnumbered Starbucks. But after months of a major crackdown, the number of pot clinics has plummeted.

Now, a series of lawsuits and counterlawsuits over city regulations is playing out in court.

And it's still uncertain how many dispensaries will be left in L.A. when the smoke clears.

Magnets For Criminals

In some neighborhoods, the drama over marijuana clinics continues. Take, for example, Eagle Rock. It's filled with Craftsman-style homes, old-fashioned shops and hipster coffeehouses.

"It's like this little bucolic, kind of a throwback town, and yet here it is, literally, like the pot dispensary capital," says disheartened resident Ellia Glassing.

Medical Marijuana Laws

Fourteen states and the District of Columbia allow people to use marijuana to treat a wide variety of ailments. Check out this state-by-state comparison.

"Yeah, we moved to Weedville!" says Carrie Hanson, another resident.

Glassing and Hanson say they support providing patients with medical marijuana. But they say that's not who they're seeing at the dispensaries on the streets where they live.

"The guys who walk in and out look like a bunch of young healthy guys," Hanson says. "They just feel they are above the law."

Glassing adds: "They look like they're walking fine to me, and they're happy, and they're ready to deal the dope to the car that pulls up behind them."

From her kitchen, Glassing says she sees people smoking their medicine on the streets, in the parking lots, and outside her home. "They deal, they smoke, they litter, they urinate," she says, "and there have been confrontations."

Some of the city's marijuana dispensaries have become magnets for criminals wanting cash and pot, and even the site of murders, including a recent triple homicide.

Frustrating City Regulations

In April, police began cracking down on clinics that weren't legally registered with Los Angeles, with the goal of reducing the numbers from more than 800 citywide to something more manageable.

"There's going to be somewhere between 70 and 180 shops that will be open for you as patients, provided they aren't breaking other laws," special assistant city attorney Jane Usher told Eagle Rock neighbors at a recent community meeting.

Usher drafted L.A.'s medical marijuana ordinance, which allows only those dispensaries that correctly registered in 2007 to operate legally. Usher admits that the city regulations have been frustrating to those who want access to their medicine, and frustrating for those who want to limit the number of marijuana outlets.

"Lots of people in our community say, 'They are open today.' And the next day, they call us and say, 'They're closed.' And the next day, 'Op! They opened up again.' " Usher said. "Hey, look, we are trying to be as responsive to your issues and concerns as possible."

She asked the residents for "patience till we get it right."

Violating A Technicality

The city attorney is now suing many of the dispensaries still operating, and there are at least 35 countersuits challenging L.A.'s regulations. So it's not clear how many will be left until the courts sort it out.

"I'm not saying to let it be the Wild West or have a free-for-all and allow collectives to run rampant," says attorney David Welch, who represents 80 dispensaries in L.A. "I think the city needs to develop reasonable regulation."

Some of the dispensaries Welch represents registered with the city on time; some of them didn't. In court, Welch has been arguing that the city ordinance sets an arbitrary limit without due process before ordering shops to close.

He notes that the city accepts tax dollars from the dispensaries, and some of them have building permits allowing them to operate as marijuana collectives. "The truth is, these are legitimate businesses and organizations," he says, adding that they are nonprofit.

Still, the city clerk's office found that only 41 of the dispensaries thought to be operating legally have actually met L.A.'s requirements. The rest face closure for violating a technicality in the law that states they cannot change ownership or management.

"The city attorney's office has been overtly hostile towards medical marijuana since the beginning," says Michael Backes, who runs Cornerstone Research Collective in Eagle Rock.

It's one of the dispensaries that may be forced to close, which Backes says is absurd "given how squeaky clean we try to operate."

Cornerstone has a reputation for providing scientific research and homegrown marijuana to patients suffering from cancer or other diseases. Backes says dispensaries like his are unfairly being swept up with what he calls "fly by night" pot shops, those simply in business for a profit, and those with questionable patients.

Backes says the city didn't grant conditional use permits or make the process a meritocracy. "Instead, they're trying to reduce the numbers by whatever method is available to them," he says. "We just think it's absurd."

But could all of this be a moot point if California voters legalize the recreational use of marijuana in November? Some say if the public referendum is adopted, it will make marijuana so widely available that it could hurt the demand for medicinal pot. Others say the new laws would make it easier for dispensaries to operate.

Those are just more uncertainties the dispensaries face as they battle for their futures in court.

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