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L.A.'s reefer madness

The City Council's lackadaisical approach to medical marijuana has resulted in clinics sprouting like, well, weeds.

October 05, 2009

This is Los Angeles, where laws that seem sensible on the first quick reading turn out to be studded with exceptions or are enforced sporadically. Consider billboards. The city's porous legal barriers encourage rogue sign companies to ignore the law and then to sue when they are challenged. They often win -- because the laws were so clumsily drafted or applied as to be deemed void by the courts.

As it is with billboards, so it threatens to become with medical (ahem) marijuana and the city's attempt at a regulatory scheme to accommodate Proposition 215, the "compassionate use" act that voters adopted in 1996. The City Council called a moratorium on new clinics and denied every request for "hardship" exemptions -- yet it failed to block many of those rejected applicants from opening anyway. Hundreds of storefronts now sell the drug, adding to the impression that, in Los Angeles, the initiative is a cover for virtual legalization. Present your physician-approved card and you can buy the stuff to treat a bad day at the office.

Let's be clear: Virtual legalization is not and should not be the city's goal. There is a nationwide debate to be had over fully legalizing marijuana, but neither Proposition 215 nor city regulation of clinics is the proper vehicle for that discussion. The council should be -- and finally seems to be -- working to allow legitimate medical patients to treat their illnesses without turning the city into a new Amsterdam.

City Atty. Carmen Trutanich is recommending a very cautious approach, with outright sales banned in favor of patient cooperatives. That comes as a jolt not just to recreational users but to patients who finally have safe and convenient access to pain relief and treatment. With the drug now so widely available, it would be hard to return to the days of cannabis clubs.

But Trutanich also points out that the marijuana being sold all over the city could (and he says in at least two test cases did) contain dangerous levels of pesticides and other contaminants, and that clinics may well get their stash from the same cartels that have wreaked so much havoc -- and violence -- in Mexico. It may not be the city's role to regulate the product or its importation, but what's the value of "compassionate use" for medical purposes if the product actually is poisonous and if clinics, rather than providing safety, are supplied by criminals?

Even if his advice to disallow sales is too draconian, Trutanich makes some valid points. It may be too late for Los Angeles to move slowly on medical marijuana, because hundreds of clinics are now operating. But it's not too late to move wisely, and with the safety and health of patients and other residents at the top of the agenda.

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