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Moratorium sought on new pot clinics

Bratton cites opening of 94 medical marijuana dispensaries in L.A. in a year and calls for rules to regulate the facilities.

January 16, 2007|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

Concerned by a 2,350% increase in the number of medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles in a one-year period, Police Chief William J. Bratton is calling for a moratorium on new facilities until strict rules can be adopted governing them.

In a report to the Police Commission, Bratton said he wants to ban existing dispensaries within 1,000 feet of schools, churches, parks and places designated exclusively for the care of children. He also advocates limiting their hours to 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The establishments are allowed under a 1996 state ballot measure and a more recent state law making marijuana available to patients by prescription to relieve pain or nausea.

Bratton said the number of dispensaries increased from four in November 2005 to 98 a year later.

"This has fostered an increase in ... crime problems and caused quality-of-life issues for families and communities, as evidenced by the 110 complaints received from neighbors, business owners and concerned citizens concerning these dispensaries," Bratton's report states.

The Police Commission will consider his recommendations today.

Los Angeles Police Department officers have been called to clinics because of problems including robberies, burglaries and drug use in front of the clinics, Lt. Paul Vernon said. Without regulations, he said, officers are hamstrung.

In the absence of specific zoning rules, 12 of the medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles have opened within 1,000 feet of schools, Bratton said.

"One clinic blatantly resorted to placing fliers on the windshields of vehicles parked in and around Grant High School in an obvious effort to entice children," Bratton said.

The chief did not identify the clinic, but said its flier stated that it is legal to own, grow and smoke medical marijuana and that "qualification is simple and our experienced physicians are more than happy to help you," adding that the visit is free if the applicant does not qualify.

"This was not the intent of the voters when they passed Proposition 215," the chief said.

The clinics have proliferated elsewhere as well, although Los Angeles, as the state's largest city, has the most, said Joseph Elford of Americans for Safe Access, a group in support of the clinics. But San Francisco, with about 30 clinics, has more per capita, or about one per 25,400 residents, while Los Angeles has one dispensary for every 39,200 people.

On Monday, advocates for medical marijuana disputed that the dispensaries are magnets for crime, and expressed concerns that Los Angeles officials may reduce patients' access to the drug.

"A blanket ruling saying you can't be within a number of feet within a school or park is entirely unnecessary and overbroad," said Bruce Mirken, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, another advocacy group.

He said a lengthy moratorium on new dispensaries would have an adverse effect on medical patients who rely on marijuana in their battles with disease.

The proliferation of dispensaries followed passage of Proposition 215, called the Compassionate Use Act, and Senate Bill 420, which took effect in 2004; together, they legalized possession and cultivation of marijuana for qualified medical patients.

Marijuana is used for medical purposes by thousands of people suffering from painful and appetite-killing diseases, including cancer, AIDS, anorexia and arthritis.

"However, the spirit and intent of this act has been exploited and abused for both profit and recreational drug use by many of the medical marijuana dispensaries in the city of Los Angeles," Bratton said. "Absent stringent regulations and enforcement actions, these dispensaries have flourished throughout the city."

The chief's recommendations were welcomed Monday by Councilman Dennis Zine, who already has asked the Planning Department to draft a moratorium ordinance, banning any new outlets for six months, with an option to extend it for another six months while new rules are being formulated. "There is no regulation as far as zoning and hours of operation," Zine said. "What I want to do is bring a semblance of order and not go against the public's will in favor of these clinics."

Steve Leon, owner of the medical marijuana outlet Highland Park Patient Collective, disagreed with the allegation that the clinics spur criminal activity.

"I think it's quite the opposite," he said. "I'm in an area that is gang-infested, but there is no graffiti on my building. It is very clean. And other businesses have moved in. We have created quite a nice little artistic community."

Leon said his building is more than 1,000 feet from schools and parks, and that the LAPD has been "very gracious."

The proposed moratorium found favor with at least some owners of current dispensaries.

"The moratorium is kind of a good idea. It's getting out of control, with a new one opening every week," said Billy Astorga, manager of the Eagle Rock Herbal Collective, adding that his business already has strict operating rules.

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

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