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Editorial

L.A.'s medical marijuana roller-coaster ride

The city hopped onto the issue of regulating dispensaries. It's too late to hop off now by trying to ban them.

January 04, 2012
(Los Angeles Times )

City Councilman Jose Huizar is asking his colleagues to ban medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles. It's a great idea. Or rather, it would have been a great idea three or four years ago — before the city purported to regulate the storefront cannabis-selling shops. The idea would not be to ban dispensaries forever but to track court rulings, determine what regulations are and are not allowable, and then construct a smart and enforceable ordinance.

But it's too late for that now. L.A. city government took its seat on a legal roller coaster when it first signaled that it couldn't or wouldn't block dispensaries from opening, then stayed for a second ride when it adopted and tried to enforce ordinances regulating where and when purveyors could operate. There's no getting off now. This city is in the front car for the duration.

At issue is whether Los Angeles has the power to regulate dispensaries. There are two basic and inescapable facts: Marijuana is a Schedule I drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which means Congress in its wisdom has determined that the plant has no accepted medical use and is a dangerous drug that must be suppressed; and Californians, in their wisdom, determined in 1996 by adopting Proposition 215 that it does indeed have medical value and that patients should be able to acquire it and use it without fear of punishment.

Courts have ruled that because the state decriminalization laws don't actually attempt to authorize possession or use — they only bar state punishment — they don't conflict with federal drug laws.

Long Beach and Los Angeles adopted similar dispensary ordinances, charging applicants a fee and issuing permits. But in October, an appeals court threw out the Long Beach ordinance. By saying when and where dispensaries could operate, the justices said, the city was affirmatively allowing something that, under federal law, it could not allow. That goes beyond the scope of Proposition 215, which merely eliminates state penalties for using medical marijuana.

Studying the Long Beach experience, and noting the proliferation of hundreds of pirate dispensaries in Los Angeles as well as those the city claims to have authorized, Huizar wants to go back to square one and wait for higher courts to rule, the state attorney general to opine and/or Sacramento lawmakers to re-craft state law. But the city lacks the resources to close every dispensary; even if it could, doing so would take so long it would hardly be worth it; and another state court has issued contrary rulings. It would be unjust to treat dispensaries that followed city laws the same as pirate operations.

Los Angeles has opted to secure access to medical marijuana for legitimate patients who need it. It's too late to pretend it never got on the roller coaster. It must take its ups and downs through the courts, and stay on board until the ride is over.

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