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Medical pot proposal erases compassion

L.A. needs to regulate pot dispensaries, but this plan goes too far.

September 26, 2009|SANDY BANKS

She didn't know whether she'd have the nerve to speak. But Judy Bowen signed the list and took a seat amid the pot smokers and growers, the lawyers and doctors, the Rastafarians and AIDS patients crowded into the Los Angeles City Council hearing room.

And when her turn came, she gripped her cane, made her way to the microphone and joined a chorus of would-be lawbreakers, there to fight a proposed ordinance that would ban the sale of medical marijuana in Los Angeles.

Bowen showed up at the council hearing because renegade marijuana shops have become the scourge of neighborhoods like hers in South Carthay, where a dozen storefront dispensaries have sprouted along Pico Boulevard between La Cienega and La Brea.

And because she "holds a prescription for medical marijuana" and sometimes relies on the drug for "extra help" with the pain from an autoimmune disorder.

"I was expecting the city attorney's office to take a hard line with regulations, like how far they should be from schools and places of worship," Bowen told me after the hearing.

But she was shocked to learn that the ordinance being considered would stop over-the-counter sales at dispensaries and allow only "collectives," where patients would have to plant, grow and harvest the marijuana they need.

"I can't grow my own," said Bowen, a 56-year-old former talent agent. "I have a brown thumb."

The line drew laughs from council members. But the prospects for patients like her aren't very funny.

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In the 13 years since California voters approved the nation's first initiative allowing the "compassionate use" of marijuana for medical ailments, Los Angeles officials have taken a hands-off approach.

The result was an explosion of unregulated marijuana outlets -- from four outlets four years ago to more than 600 shops today.

"The profit-making motive is huge," said Councilman Dennis Zine, who launched the regulation effort in response to complaints of crime and neighborhood blight.

"There's a legitimate use for [medical marijuana] and we want to help people who . . . need it for the right purpose," he said. "But you've got all these places making a ton of money, where any kind of excuse can get you a prescription. . . . That part of the abuse we need to address."

Still, even Zine, a retired cop, thinks the city attorney's proposal "is a little too Draconian in its interpretation. We might have to come up with some compromise," he said.

The city attorney's office contends that the state's medical marijuana initiative does not allow sale of the otherwise illegal drug, only the "cultivation and exchange" among members of patient and caregiver collectives.

Now, dispensary operators manage to comply by calling themselves collectives, having customers sign up to join when they make a buy, and labeling the money charged for the drug "donations."

Under the city's attorney's plan, that would not be good enough. Dispensaries would have 90 days to adopt more stringent standards, "cease operations," or be shut down.

The new standards would require collectives to set up their own marijuana growing operations -- with video monitors and security alarms -- located at least 1,000 yards from schools and parks, and hidden from "any public or other private property."

Now, dispensaries take in as much marijuana as they can sell, most from pot farms in Northern California. The new law would allow each collective to grow no more than 100 plants at a time, or keep more than five pounds of dried marijuana on hand.

And no more signing up on the spot. Patients would register in advance by name, address and phone number. No cash would change hands. The collective's records would specify "the exact nature of each member's participation" and could be reviewed by police at any time, "without need for a search warrant, subpoena or court order."

Are these patients or parolees we're talking about?

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We have to face the reality that our broken medical marijuana delivery system needs fixing. It has grown so large, so fast, with so little regulation, that dispensaries have become a magnet for thieves and a cover for illicit drug dealing.

Even patients would welcome more scrutiny.

When a new dispensary opened recently near her home, Bowen -- the vice president of her neighborhood association -- paid a visit, with her prescription.

"I was shocked. The building was falling apart. There was a stained carpet, a ripped sofa, a thuggy-looking guy" with what looked like the bulge of a gun under his shirt, and a pushy, shady looking salesman, she said.

"There were just four jars of marijuana buds," Bowen told me. "That's not what a dispensary is supposed to be. . . . I felt like I'd walked into an episode of 'The Wire.' "

There must be a way to shut down that kind of place and still protect legitimate operations -- where the guy behind the counter can explain the difference between Captain Planet and Master Kush and knows which strain will quell the nausea of chemotherapy and which can ease the pain of arthritis.

This proposal seems not just strict, but mean.

Is it fair, or even reasonable, to require people suffering from cancer, anorexia, AIDS, spasticity, chronic pain-- conditions listed by name in the Compassionate Use Act -- to work the fields in exchange for medication?

It's simple, the lawyers told me: Cash transactions violate the state's medical marijuana law.

The proposed ordinance "may appear tough," conceded Deputy City Atty. Heather Aubry. "But everything that we've said is based on the law and the [court] cases. That's what we have to focus on, not whether or not we think it's fair, not whether we like it, not whether it's the most convenient method. . . .

"We don't feel that we are going against the intent of voters," she said.

I think she's selling the voters short. We know what compassion looks like, and this isn't it.

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sandy.banks@latimes.com

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