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

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

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

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In Los Angeles, medical marijuana dispensaries once outnumbered Starbucks. But after a months-long crackdown, the number of pot clinics there has plummeted. Now, a series of lawsuits and countersuits over city regulations is playing out in court. And as NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports, it's uncertain how many dispensaries will be left in L.A. when the smoke clears.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: Eagle Rock is a neighborhood filled with Craftsman-style homes, old-fashioned shops, hipster coffeehouses and medicinal marijuana dispensaries.

Ms. ELLIA GLASSING: It's like this little, bucolic - kind of a throwback town and yet here it is - literally, like, the pot-dispensary capital.

Ms. CARRIE HANSON: We moved to Weedville, and we didn't know.

Ms. GLASSING: Not what we want to be put on the map for. It's very, very disheartening.

DEL BARCO: Residents Ellia Glassing and Carrie Hanson say they support providing patients with medical marijuana. But they say that's not who they're seeing going in and out of the dispensaries on the streets where they live.

Ms. HANSON: They just feel like they're above the law, and the guys who walk in and out look like a bunch of young, healthy guys.

Ms. GLASSING: Maybe they've got really bad headaches. I don't know. But 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.

DEL BARCO: From her kitchen, Glassing sees them smoking their medicine on the streets, in the parking lots, and outside her home.

Ms. GLASSING: They deal, they smoke, they litter, they urinate. And there have been confrontations.

DEL BARCO: Some of L.A. County's marijuana dispensaries have become magnets for criminals wanting cash and pot - even the site of murders, including a recent triple homicide.

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

Ms. JANE USHER (Special Assistant City Attorney): 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.

DEL BARCO: Jane Usher addressed a recent community meeting in Eagle Rock. She's the special assistant city attorney who drafted L.A.'s medical marijuana ordinance.

It allows only those dispensaries that correctly registered in 2007 to operate legally. Usher admitted 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.

Ms. USHER: 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: Oh, they opened up again. Hey, look, we are trying to be as responsive to your concerns and your issues as possible. Patience - patience 'til we get it right.

DEL BARCO: 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.

Mr. DAVID WELCH (Attorney): I'm not saying to let it be the Wild West or have a free-for-all and allow collectives to run rampant throughout the city. I think the city needs to develop some kind of reasonable regulation.

DEL BARCO: Attorney David Welch represents 80 dispensaries in L.A., including those in Eagle Rock. Some of them registered with the city on time; some of them didn't. In court, Welch has been arguing the city ordinance sets an arbitrary limit without due process before ordering the shops to close.

Mr. WELCH: The city is accepting tax dollars from them. They have registration from them. Some of them have building permits that say they can operate as a marijuana collective. The truth is that these are legitimate businesses and organizations - nonprofit, though.

DEL BARCO: But 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.

Mr. MICHAEL BACKES (Cornerstone Research Collective): The city attorney's office has been overtly hostile towards medical marijuana since the beginning. They used to kind of just scoff.

DEL BARCO: Michael Backes runs Cornerstone Research Collective in Eagle Rock, one of the dispensaries that may be forced to close.

Mr. BACKES: Singling out Cornerstone for closure is so absurd, given what we try to do and how squeaky clean we try to operate.

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

Mr. BACKES: The city didn't do a conditional-use permitting process. They didn't make it a meritocracy. Instead, they're trying to reduce the numbers by whatever method is available to them. We just think it's absurd.

DEL BARCO: But could all this be a moot point if California voters legalize marijuana in November? Some say if the public referendum is adopted, it will make marijuana so widely available it could hurt the demand for medicinal pot. That's just another uncertainty the dispensaries face as they battle for their futures in court.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

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