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New L.A. law on medical marijuana shops faces hazy future

Voters approved a measure that would keep only 135 dispensaries — those operating before a failed moratorium in 2007 — open. But challenges await the law.

May 22, 2013|By Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times
  • Patients and supporters of Proposition D, including Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, center, appear at a rally at City Hall in downtown L.A. last month. Voters approved the measure Tuesday.
Patients and supporters of Proposition D, including Los Angeles City Councilman… (Christina House / For The…)

Los Angeles voters took regulation of the city's medical marijuana shops into their own hands Tuesday, embracing a ballot measure to sharply reduce the number of dispensaries in the city.

But as in all things related to pot policy, the future of the new law is hazy.

Under the measure, only 135 dispensaries — those that were operating before a failed moratorium in 2007 — will be allowed to stay open. But enforcement could prove a monumental challenge as backers of a rival measure threaten lawsuits and city lawyers begin the long process of identifying all of the city's dispensaries and bringing them into compliance.

"Now the city has some work to do," said Steven Lubell, a medical marijuana attorney who supported the winning measure.

City officials, who have spent years struggling to regulate pot shops with little success, said they didn't know how many dispensaries were operating in Los Angeles. A recent police estimate put the number at around 700, but others said it could be more than double that. Jane Usher, a special assistant city attorney, said once the results of Tuesday's election are certified, city lawyers will begin updating their database of dispensaries and sending letters to operators notifying them of the new law.

Those that opened before the moratorium will be required to be at least 600 feet from any school, park or child-care facility and pay 6% of their gross receipts in taxes. Those that opened after 2007 will be ordered to close

Usher acknowledged that some of the now-outlawed dispensaries would probably continue to operate. "There will be efforts to fly below the radar," she said.

Dispensaries that don't comply with orders to close will be sued, she said

Adam Bierman, a consultant who helps people open dispensaries, predicted that profitable dispensaries will remain open as long as possible.

"Some of them generate a million or two [million] dollars a month," Bierman said. "You think those people are just going to pack their bags and leave?"

Supporters of a rival ballot initiative, Measure F, which would have allowed unlimited dispensaries but would have toughened some regulations, also predicted that the pot wars were far from over. David Welch, an attorney who backed Measure F, said dispensaries that opened after 2007 were considering suing the city on the theory that the 2007 cutoff was arbitrary and unfair.

"I think there's going to be a big fight before they all go away," said Justin Hartfield, co-founder of WeedMaps, an online social network for medical marijuana patients that helps users find their nearest dispensary.

Hartfield noted that many of the city's dispensaries rode out previous attempts at regulation, including a 2010 city ordinance that sought to cap the number of post-moratorium dispensaries at 70 and an attempt last year to completely ban shops. "Our guys have been very resilient throughout the years," said Hartfield, who also supported Measure F.

Even if the city is eventually successful in shutting down dispensaries that opened after 2007, Hatfield said, an underground economy could develop. He said that in other cities where dispensaries have been limited, marijuana delivery services have replaced brick-and-mortar stores.

Meital Manzuri, an attorney who specializes in medical marijuana law and who represented dispensaries that opened after the moratorium, said she believed that the new law would withstand legal challenges. She cited an appellate court ruling last year that upheld the use of the 2007 cutoff included in a previous ordinance. That ordinance never went into effect because it was challenged in lawsuits.

Manzuri also cited this month's California Supreme Court ruling that cities have the right to ban dispensaries. The ruling sent a message to cities that "any sort of regulation they want" is allowed, Manzuri said.

Usher agreed, saying the court rulings have given "credence and credibility" to the ordinance approved by voters Tuesday. "The good news is not only have the voters spoken with great clarity but the courts have," she said.

kate.linthicum@latimes.com

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