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Marijuana: A failure to regulate, but not by dispensaries

Blowback

October 02, 2012|By Amanda Reiman
  • Protesters rally at L.A. City Hall against a ban on medical marijuana dispensaries.
Protesters rally at L.A. City Hall against a ban on medical marijuana dispensaries. (Los Angeles Times )

There is a false assumption that medical marijuana regulation does not exist in Los Angeles.

The Times' Sept. 27 editorial, "In a haze on pot policy," says, "In the face of this chaos, the federal crackdown is, to some, good news -- finally, definitive action is being taken to stem the uncontrollable expansion of medical marijuana franchises.”

The federal crackdown in L.A. is thought to be in reaction to a void of attempted regulation. But while the city itself may have run into barriers to the regulation of medical marijuana, the industry has been working to ensure community safety and patient access.

Los Angeles has been struggling to establish oversight of its dispensaries, but the city's medical marijuana industry has not been sitting idly by. The Greater Los Angeles Collective Alliance, or GLACA, was formed to infuse quality control into the L.A. medical marijuana industry. Founded in 2006, GLACA is a voluntary association of medical marijuana cooperatives and collective operators in Los Angeles that have organized around a shared desire to provide safe access to patients with adherence to a strict code of operational guidelines.

GLACA members work to protect medical marijuana patients and their communities; develop, implement and monitor compliance with operational and safety protocols for collectives and cooperatives in the Los Angeles area; and educate their communities about medical marijuana. GLACA even provides a seal of approval (akin to Good Housekeeping's) to businesses that are found to have good practices, including compliance with local and state law and good neighbor and community relations.

But this self-regulation wasn't enough for the feds.

Last week, U.S. attorneys for the Central District of California served almost 70 Los Angeles dispensaries with letters demanding that they close within two weeks or face civil forfeiture. The attorneys did not contact GLACA to see if any of the targeted businesses had been vetted and approved by the industry group. In essence, the U.S. attorneys dismissed the L.A. dispensaries' efforts to regulate themselves in the absence of action by City Hall. Such action by the collectives should be lauded, not overlooked and basically insulted.

U.S. attorneys themselves have admitted to having limited knowledge of medical marijuana or what constitutes a good or bad dispensary. Instead of deferring to the experts, the federal government began bulldozing the California program on Oct. 13, 2011, when the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency raided Northstone Organics in Mendocino County. This permitted cultivation program was working with the local sheriff's department, which had created and implemented a tightly controlled program to monitor and regulate medical marijuana production within its jurisdiction. As part of the program, all of the plants being cultivated at Northstone Organics were tagged by the sheriff's department and accounted for. The crackdown that ensued after that raid and that continues today could mean the end of safe access for patients, the proliferation of open-air marijuana sales and the devastating loss of jobs during a time of high unemployment.

By ignoring the regulations that already exist at the municipal level and the attempts at self-regulation by the industry, the feds are actually getting in the way of the marijuana control they claim to desire. In the process, they are encouraging a clandestine, opaque system of distribution that stands to present real risk and harm to patients, providers and communities.

But maybe that is their plan. If those in the industry and at the local level abandon their efforts to regulate due to fears and frustrations around federal interference (much as the city of Oakland did after its City Council was threatened with criminal action after approving the licensing of large cultivation facilities), what will be left is the Wild West of marijuana distribution that existed before groups like GLACA and cities spent years developing complex medical marijuana programs.

The federal crackdown has thus far been successful in rolling back medical marijuana programs in Northern Californian cities such as San Francisco and Oakland, where tight regulations and willing city involvement exist. This cannot continue. It is time for the Obama administration to investigate the legitimacy of these closures and determine whether the businesses in question are in compliance with state law.

In order to determine whether the letters served by the U.S. attorneys were indeed to businesses operating outside state law, the Department of Justice must freeze all further action against medical marijuana businesses until these actions are subject to review by a committee independent of the U.S. attorneys in California. Furthermore, it is time to recognize the efforts of GLACA and other industry associations that are putting the effort in to strengthen the system on behalf of patients, providers and their communities.

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Amanda Reiman, a lecturer at the UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare, is a policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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