Smoke never settles in L.A. fight over pot shops - East Valley Tribune: Politics

Smoke never settles in L.A. fight over pot shops

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Posted: Thursday, August 9, 2012 8:49 pm

LOS ANGELES -- Five years ago, the Los Angeles City Council thought it had reined in an explosion of pot businesses across this sprawling metropolis with a moratorium against new medical marijuana dispensaries.

Now L.A., with 762 documented dispensaries and scores more thought to be operating under the radar, has approved an outright ban on storefront marijuana providers. The city also enacted a controversial plan for medical marijuana users to grow their own pot.

But many question whether Los Angeles -- where Snoop Dogg blazes a fatty joint in ads for "free bong hits" at Hollywood's KushMart and City Compassionate Caregivers near downtown invites patrons to "medicate" in its 3-7 p.m. "happy hour" -- has finally figured out how to control its marijuana landscape.

While hundreds of dispensaries have closed elsewhere in California amid local crackdowns, federal raids and threats of prosecution, the City of Angels flutters in an alternative cannabis universe.

Los Angeles has become the morality play for medical marijuana and a failure of city regulation. It has lost key court rulings in favor of dispensaries and in some cases failed to enforce local standards that withstood legal challenges.

After its ineffectual 2007 moratorium, the city in 2010 passed a medical marijuana ordinance setting a limit of 186 dispensaries. Scores of stores shuttered, and the city threatened legal actions against 450 others that refused to close. But then a judge's order froze the ordinance. And another city effort to stem pot operations -- holding a lottery to set a limit of 100 dispensaries -- drew a slew of lawsuits.

Even as Los Angeles won in court -- such as a 2011 ruling affirming the city's right to restrict dispensaries -- it failed to stop new pot clubs from opening, often with retail licenses not specifying that they sold.

Los Angeles was one of the last major cities in California to try to tackle the spread of cannabis outlets, which now flourish in much of the city. As many as 250 dispensaries sprouted on Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley. Pot leaf signs greet traffic on Melrose Avenue near Hollywood.

Councilman Jose Huizar, who represents Rodriguez's East Los Angeles district, led the move for the dispensary ban. He argued the city had dithered too long, creating an intractable challenge.

"If we wait any longer" to close stores en masse "we will continue to chase our tail," Huizar said.

The City Council voted 14-0 last month to ban dispensaries and use some of the $2.5 million the city has collected in voter-approved medical marijuana taxes to mail closure orders to cannabis clubs and pursue legal actions to shutter them.

Advocates say there are hundreds of thousands of medical marijuana users within the Los Angeles city limits. Under the ban, they can cultivate or share cannabis in groups of three or fewer people. The city plan will let hospices, home health care agencies and primary caregivers provide marijuana to sick people who have a doctor's recommendation. It's not clear who would grow that marijuana.

Councilman Dennis Zine, who championed the city's 2010 dispensary ordinance, wonders whether Los Angeles can succeed in its latest attempt to rein in its teeming cannabis industry.

"Whichever way we go," Zine said, "there will be another cycle of lawsuits."

The city's latest efforts come amid continuing confusion over the rights of local governments and marijuana providers. While medical marijuana has been legal in the state since 1996, state legislators have provided only vague guidelines on how it can be distributed.

The state Supreme Court is reviewing four cases involving conflicting local ordinances in cities that have sought to license or ban dispensaries.

Meanwhile, California's four U.S. attorneys charge that marijuana outlets are profiteering in violation of both federal and state laws. In counties across the state, including Sacramento, U.S. authorities have raided dispensaries or scared hundreds out of existence with letters threatening landlords with prosecution.

Contact reporter Peter Hecht at phecht@sacbee.com.

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