RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The Los Angeles City Council has voted to shut down all of the medical marijuana dispensaries in the city. That's no easy task. There are more than 800 of them, and that's more than the number of Starbucks here in L.A. So after years of struggling to regulate the mushrooming pot stores, city officials decided to prohibit them all together. From member station KPCC, Frank Stoltze reports.
FRANK STOLTZE, BYLINE: Jennifer Moran supports California's 1996 Compassionate Use Act that allows people to use marijuana for medicinal purposes. But the new mother with a baby in her arms says things have gotten out of hand in her East Hollywood neighborhood. She's flanked on both ends of her block by medical marijuana dispensaries.
JENNIFER MORAN: When I walk home from the grocery store, I have to walk past a marijuana clinic where people are standing outside smoking marijuana. People stand in front of my house smoking marijuana. And I'm right across the street from a K through 2 school.
STOLTZE: In some areas of Los Angeles, dozens of pot shops crowd single zip codes. They feature myriad varieties of marijuana stuffed into plastic baggies, rolled into joints and cooked into brownies. Some are mom-and-pop nonprofits. Others are multi-million dollar businesses serving more than a thousand people.
These patients easily obtain recommendations from a handful of doctors willing to write them for ailments ranging from cancer to back pain to stress. In testimony before the city council, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said he has no problem with medical marijuana.
CHIEF CHARLIE BECK: What we do have issue with is large for-profit businesses that operate outside what we think is state law, and not only cause a nuisance to the community but cause a public danger because of a very toxic mixture of high value narcotics and a lot of cash.
STOLTZE: Since 2007, Los Angeles has attempted to regulate pot shops by limiting their number and placing restrictions on their operations. Pot shop owners have sued, arguing state law allows them to create collectives that distribute marijuana. Courts have issued conflicting rulings, with one saying federal law prohibits any use of marijuana. Indeed, federal authorities periodically raid pot shops in California. Many on the city council were conflicted over the issue. Councilman Paul Koretz said pot has provided relief for his friends with AIDS.
PAUL KORETZ: Now, I'm not happy about the hundreds of illegal dispensaries that have been added, but I don't want to see us completely close off access to people that desperately need medical marijuana.
STOLTZE: Outside city hall, Michael Oliveri sits in a wheelchair, inhaling pot through a vaporizer. He suffers from muscular dystrophy.
MICHAEL OLIVERI: I don't like the illegal shops. I even have friends that own some of them and I tell them, I'm like, you know, you're the problem. You're the reason why I have so many problems in L.A.
STOLTZE: But the 28-year-old Oliveri says banning medical marijuana dispensaries will make it too hard for him to obtain a medicine that relieves his pain and improves his appetite.
OLIVERI: I'm pretty much fighting just to stay alive. It's the only medicine that allows me to eat and not weigh 84 pounds and six foot one. It's not a very good combo. So I'm trying to put on that extra hundred pounds.
STOLTZE: Under the new ordinance, Oliveri can grow pot with one or two other people. Or he can travel to nearby cities that still allow medical marijuana dispensaries. Those pot shops may be deluged with customers as L.A. moves to shut down its own. Medical marijuana activists in the city haven't given up yet. They say they may place a referendum before voters that would once again allow pot shops in L.A.
For NPR News, I'm Frank Stoltze in Los Angeles.
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