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Medical marijuana backers seek to repeal L.A. dispensary ban

If enough signatures are gathered, a referendum to overturn the prohibition would go before voters in March, coinciding with the mayoral primary.

August 18, 2012|By Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times
  • Los Angeles' new law prohibits storefront sales of marijuana at dispensaries such as this one. Those who fail to comply risk jail time and fines of up to $2,500 a day.
Los Angeles' new law prohibits storefront sales of marijuana at dispensaries… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

Outside a Trader Joe's in Silver Lake, a man in sunglasses and flip-flops called out questions to bag-toting shoppers.

"Do you support medical marijuana?" he asked. "Well did you hear what City Hall just did?"

An army of signature-gatherers has hit Los Angeles streets in recent weeks in a drive to repeal a recent ban on marijuana dispensaries. If activists can collect the roughly 27,400 names required within the next three weeks, a referendum to overturn the ban would go before voters in March.

The pot shop vote would share the ballot with the mayoral primary contest — an addition that could spice up the mayor's race and test the clout of the medical marijuana community.

Seeking to increase their influence in recent months, dispensary owners have coordinated contributions of thousands of dollars to the campaigns of some council members, and a labor union made up of dispensary workers has held boisterous rallies outside City Hall.

If the measure gets on the ballot, the immediate effect would be the temporary suspension of the ordinance outlawing dispensaries, officials said. That would leave the City Council back where it was a month ago, before it approved the ban in a last-ditch effort to impose its will on an unconventional industry that has so far eluded regulatory control.

Officials celebrated the ordinance when it was passed, saying it gave the city a long-sought legal instrument to shut down dispensaries, especially those that have brought repeated complaints from neighbors. "Relief is on its way," City Councilman Jose Huizar promised residents.

But some defiant dispensary owners have vowed to keep their doors open, even as the city has begun notifying them that they must shut down by Sept. 6. In a letter mailed this week, city lawyers warned dispensary operators that they risk jail time and fines of up to $2,500 a day if they fail to comply with the ban.

The new law prohibits storefront sales of marijuana but allows groups of three or fewer to cultivate and share the drug.

Marijuana activists say that the new restrictions won't work and that growing medical-grade pot is an expensive science most patients can't afford. They argue that the ordinance violates a state law guaranteeing safe access to the drug for those who need it.

That claim was the basis of a lawsuit filed against the city Friday by a medical marijuana trade association that represents patients, dispensaries and growers.

Marc O'Hara, director of the Patient Care Alliance, said the dispensary ban is "heartless" and denies patients their right to assemble.

Jane Usher, special assistant to City Atty. Carmen Trutanich, said she had not seen the lawsuit. A similar challenge to a previous city ordinance that attempted to regulate dispensaries was rejected by a judge, she said.

Los Angeles officials have struggled for years to come up with a workable policy, partly because of contradictory court rulings on what cities can do to regulate distribution of medical marijuana. The city is battling more than 100 lawsuits over its earlier attempts to regulate dispensaries, Usher said.

Outside the Trader Joe's, Web developer Adam Zadikian signed the petition, saying medical marijuana is a part of the city's culture and is here to stay.

"People are not going to stop smoking," he said. "I don't think prohibition works."

Some other petition-signers acknowledged that they had reservations about the rapid growth in the number of pot shops in Los Angeles, and about lax restrictions on who qualifies to be a medical marijuana patient.

"Sometimes I think it's too easy," Alberto Lopez said. "I see them every four blocks. It's crazy, but I guess it's safer than getting it on the corner."

Supporters of the dispensary ban said repealing it would be a step backward.

"It just puts us back in the status quo where there is no regulation," said Michael Larsen, president of the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council. His neighborhood has attracted a large number of dispensaries in part because of its proximity to other cities, including Burbank and Glendale, that don't allow them.

"It's a no man's land. It's a crazy free-for-all for pot stores," he said. "I cross my fingers they won't be able to pull it off."

kate.linthicum@latimes.com

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