RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Today was supposed to mark the end of medical marijuana dispensaries here in Los Angeles. Opponents, including patients, have managed to get the ban on hold for now, and dispensaries are suing the city. NPR's Mandalit del Barco has this update on the latest twists and turns of L.A.'s pot clinics.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: For years, Los Angeles has been a mecca for medical marijuana dispensaries. Anyone with a doctor's recommendation can stop in at chic storefronts offering cannabis-laced desserts or at the more underground clinics, labeled only with a green cross.
Hundreds, maybe a thousand, of these pot shops popped up around L.A. City officials tried to get a handle on the proliferation, with endless meetings, community hearings, police raids and lawsuits. Finally, this summer the council decided...
JOSE HUIZAR: Enough is enough, we had to put the brakes on this.
BARCO: City council member Jose Huizar wrote a bill outlawing all dispensaries. The council overwhelmingly passed the ban.
HUIZAR: It was getting way out of control. A thousand dispensaries? Some neighborhoods have two per block and young people have access. They go around the corner, they smoke it. Crime increases around these dispensaries. The traffic, the robberies - it was getting way out of control.
BARCO: Huizar's bill didn't outlaw medical marijuana. But it did call for a so-called gentle ban, which would only allow three or fewer patients or their caregivers to grow their own.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BARCO: Egyptian meditation music and the scent of indica, sativa and hybrid marijuana strains waft through one pot clinic in L.A.'s Franklin Heights neighborhood. Sitting in the front office is Marc O'Hara, the executive director of Patient Care Alliance L.A. He scoffs at the idea that a gentle ban would provide access to medical marijuana.
MARC O'HARA: It's inconceivable to think that three home-bound patients suffering from spasticity, cancer, autism could somehow pull together the wherewithal to produce medicine with the potency and the medicinal effect of what's grown by the best cultivators on the planet.
BARCO: O'Hara's group is suing the city over its handling of medical marijuana clinics. His colleague, Tiffany Wright, who says she's a cannabis patient, says the city's ban would drive legitimate users underground.
TIFFANY WRIGHT: I feel like we're almost being forced back into the Dark Ages. Nobody that I know who's a card-carrying patient wants to get their medicine from some suspect in a dark alley that could potentially be contaminated with mold and pesticides with no knowledge of who grew it or where it's been grown.
BARCO: Facing an outright ban on medical marijuana shops, activists, dispensary operators and the union representing pot shop workers started a campaign. They collected tens of thousands of signatures, calling for a ballot measure repealing the ban. Activist Don Duncan says they had no choice, since the city's policies have never been clear.
DON DUNCAN: I look back and shake my head and think, you know, what in the world has been going on in this city since 2005.
BARCO: Duncan heads the California chapter of Americans for Safe Access. He says until now, police have raided clinics at random, while the city council floundered with various policies.
DUNCAN: We're not saying no regulation, just a free for all. Nor are we saying we'll ban it outright. We're going to present the people of Los Angeles with a reasonable middle.
BARCO: If the city clerk verifies the signatures activists collected are valid, Angelinos will vote on the referendum in March. Meanwhile, L.A.'s ban is officially on hold. The State Supreme Court has yet to decide if cities can even shut down clinics at all. And federal officials continue to crack down on marijuana enterprises of all kinds in California, all of which are illegal under federal law.
Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.