L.A. Reins In Its Pot Shops
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L.A. Reins In Its Pot Shops
Posted by CN Staff on May 10, 2010 at 18:57:43 PT
By Tamara Audi
Source: Wall Street Journal
Los Angeles, CA -- City officials here are hoping that a new get-tough policy will finally allow them to gain control of the hundreds of medical-marijuana dispensaries that have sprung up over the past few years.But many owners of the 600 or so pot outlets currently operating openly here don't want to go quietly. They have hired lawyers and plan to fight the city in court. What was supposed to be a comprehensive resolution to Los Angeles's long-running pot controversy is shaping up instead to be a long, strange trip.
"The city is going to be bogged down by years of litigation," said Dan Halbert, president of Safe Access, a coalition of 130 dispensaries in Los Angeles that the city recently ordered closed. "Nobody wants that." Mr. Halbert, who operates a dispensary, is a plaintiff in a lawsuit that a group of dispensaries filed against the city last month.A 1996 California law allows people who are sick or in pain to use marijuana, which they can obtain through legal dispensaries.San Francisco and other cities passed laws capping the number of dispensaries within their borders. But Los Angeles never did, and the shops mushroomed. The city finally issued a moratorium on new outlets in 2007, but failed to enforce it.Residents in some parts of the city complained that the medical marijuana shops were creating a public nuisance, and attracting pot smokers who weren't really sick.Meanwhile, dispensaries opened and closed so quickly that city officials struggled to get an accurate count. At first, they said there were more than 1,000; that number later was scaled back to about 600.Now, armed with a new ordinance that restricts the number of dispensaries to 186 in this city of 4 million people, the city is launching a new offensive. Last week, the city attorney sent letters ordering 439 dispensaries to shut down by June 7, when the ordinance takes effect.Dispensaries are defiant. "We're preparing for a long fight," said David Welch, the lawyer representing Mr. Halbert's group. He contends that the ordinance unfairly discriminates against those dispensaries that opened after the moratorium, and plans to request a court order allowing them to remain open while the issue is argued before a judge.Prosecutors said they plan to fight, too. The new law allows city attorneys to prosecute offenders with up to six months in jail and $2,500 a day in fines.But a drawn out legal battle could put the city in an awkward position. Los Angeles faces a half-billion dollar budget deficit in its next fiscal year, and has cut funding to the city attorney's office and the police department. A costly court fight could drain resources, but officials don't want to come off as accommodating a situation that residents complain has become unmanageable."We're hoping for voluntary compliance. We're hoping not to prosecute 439 dispensaries," said Asha Greenberg, an assistant city prosecutor overseeing the effort to close the shops. But, she added "we really don't know how many people are going to cooperate."Earl Stein, co-owner of a dispensary fighting closure, said the city shouldn't hamper his nascent industry in a recession. According to state tax records, marijuana sales generate between $58 million and $105 million in annual sales-tax revenue.Past efforts to reduce the number of dispensaries, including issuing the moratorium on new stores, only managed to shutter 34. Meanwhile, dozens more sprouted up.About 21 shops operate in a single Los Angeles neighborhood, a 2.5-square-mile enclave called Eagle Rock. Michael Larsen, public-safety director of the neighborhood council, said the situation was "out of control."Some dispensaries do plan to vanish voluntarily. Private Organic Therapy, in a tidy strip mall between a furniture store and an upscale liquor shop, will close, said its manager, Dave Warden. Its owners don't want to fight the city, he said.But, he said, another dispensary that opened before the moratorium—and therefore can operate even under the new rules—plans to move into the same location. Mr. Warden said he would manage the new store.Like most dispensaries, customers—officially, patients—are buzzed in through a locked door once they present a doctor's note. Pot is kept behind glass counters in canning jars tagged with names like Skywalker and Nameless. Because dispensaries are supposed to be nonprofit collectives, operators post "suggested donations" ranging from $25 to $90 for an eighth of an ounce of marijuana, depending on the strain and the store.On a recent weekday morning, a plumber, an actress and a tattoo artist all came in. Mr. Warden went through the different strains and their varying effects."He's like the wine sommelier of pot," said Julie Wagner, the actress.A few miles away, Amy Weiss and her mother, Kathy, said they planned to fight the city's order to close their shop, Buds on Melrose. They said they spent $88,000 refurbishing the store with a new bathroom, soft lighting, red walls and wood floors.Ms. Weiss and her mother, a breast-cancer survivor, opened Buds after the moratorium to cater to female cancer patients."There was no place for me to go," said Kathy Weiss, the cancer survivor. "I'd go to one place and there'd be a guy with tattoos on his head calling me dude."Source: Wall Street Journal (US)Author: Tamara AudiPublished: May 11, 2010Copyright: 2010 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.Contact: wsj.ltrs wsj.comWebsite: Medical Marijuana Archives
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