December 8, 2009 – Seeking to bring the city’s medical marijuana dispensary boom under tight control, the Los Angeles City Council decided today to cap the total number at 70, but to allow those that originally registered with the city to remain open.

Under the city’s 2007 moratorium on new dispensaries, 186 registered with the city. Officials believe at least 137 of those remain open in their original locations. Under the motion adopted this afternoon, those dispensaries could stay open but could be required to move to comply with the ordinance’s restrictions on where they may locate.

Councilman Jose Huizar proposed a cap to ensure that dispensaries would not be concentrated in any one neighborhood. Currently, with no ordinance in place to control their location, dispensaries have clustered in some neighborhoods, such as Eagle Rock, Hollywood and Woodland Hills, drawn by empty storefronts or by proximity to night life.

Urging the city to adopt a low number that it could control, Huizar said that “it is always easier to roll up than to ramp down.”

Councilman Dennis Zine argued strongly to give preference to the dispensaries that registered with the city. “I think we should hold true to those that followed the rules,” he said

After adopting the cap, the council turned to other aspects of the proposed ordinance. It remained unclear when the entire package might come to a final vote.

City officials say between 800 and 1,000 dispensaries are operating. Most opened in violation of a moratorium that the city failed to enforce and that a judge has recently decided was invalid because the City Council illegally extended it.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had also urged the council to send him an ordinance that would put a firm limit on the number of dispensaries in Los Angeles.

With no data on the number of medical marijuana patients in Los Angeles, council members took the same approach as other cities that have adopted caps: picking a number that sounded reasonable to them. Council members acknowledged that they may have to revisit the issue.

The only other city among the state’s 10 largest to impose a cap is Oakland, which has less than one-tenth the population of Los Angeles and allows four dispensaries. Those operations have become extremely successful, splitting about $20 million a year in sales. Berkeley, with a population of 107,000, allows three shops; Palm Springs, population 47,600, two; West Hollywood, population 37,000, four; and Sebastopol, population 7,700, two.

Several of these cities, which set their caps arbitrarily, are now considering raising them.

By John Hoeffel. Source.

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Past the security man and his pit bull and through a haze of eye-watering smoke, two youths load up a pipe next to a row of shiny glass jars with two dozen varieties of marijuana bud displayed like candy.

Hundreds of pot shops have sprung up in the last couple of years across Los Angeles, taking advantage of California’s medical marijuana laws to do a brisk trade in cannabis offerings branded with names like “Big Buds” and “Super Trainwreck”.

Roughly 1,000 marijuana dispensaries now cater to cancer patients and recreational dope smokers alike — but city prosecutors declared war on many of them this month with threats to take action against those selling pot for profit.

A state law passed in 1996 decriminalized marijuana for medical use, and a 2003 ballot measure specified the drug could be cultivated and distributed to prescription-holding patients through nonprofit collectives.

Advocates for greater legalization have argued the 2003 initiative permits medical marijuana to be sold in storefront businesses, which have flourished since federal raids ceased after President George W. Bush left office in January.

A 2007 city moratorium on new outlets made little difference.

The new crackdown by local authorities comes as President Barack Obama has signaled a softer stance on medical marijuana, telling federal attorneys not to prosecute individual users or dispensaries in states where it has been legalized, and the country’s first medical marijuana cafe has opened in Oregon.

Licensed Californian collectives that adhere to the rules say legitimate operations like theirs are being sucked into a sweep against what local prosecutors deem rogue pot shops.

“We are low-hanging fruit for the cops,” said the manager of a West Hollywood dispensary, as a migraine-prone movie production assistant came in to buy two quarter-ounce (seven-gram) bags of weed and a bag of marijuana lozenges.

“We vet everyone who comes through the door. We play by the rules, we’re grown-ups. But there’s zero law enforcement, so all these rogue collectives have opened, and we are being lumped in with them,” he said, declining to give his name.

California was the first of about a dozen U.S. states to decriminalize marijuana for medical purposes, and its use is less controversial in cities like San Francisco and Oakland.

Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley and City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, however, say proliferation of pot shops in the second largest U.S. city has gone too far.

LAVA LAMPS TO RED EYES

“There’s no mention in the law that you can sell it over the counter,” Joseph Esposito, head of the district attorney’s narcotics division, told Reuters. “The dispensaries are about clever people who looked at the law and said: ‘How can I make a lot of money exploiting this?'”

Dispensaries are allowed to take donations for marijuana to cover cultivation costs and overhead, but they are not supposed turn a profit or sell more than individual doses. The marijuana is supposed to be consumed at the patient’s home.

The atmosphere and look of dispensaries vary considerably. Some have well-lit waiting rooms adorned with lava lamps, Asian-themed furniture and holistic medicine magazines clearly geared toward clients suffering from ill health.

“I’d be a nervous wreck if I couldn’t come here,” said Ernie, a gaunt middle-aged man visiting an upscale West Hollywood outlet to buy pot prescribed for his back pain, insomnia, amnesia and other minor mental and physical disabilities.

Other shops reek of pot, with red-eyed smokers puffing away on pipes in dingy back rooms where erotic posters boast a menu of marijuana strains with names like “Skywalker” and “AK-47”.

“I’m not a doctor. I don’t ask what’s wrong with people. My job is to supply them,” said the manager of one shabby pot shop, where a client sported gang-style facial tattoos.

Another dispensary manager admitted most of his clients just want to get high. He said they prefer the quality and prices of his products to those on the street.

“Ninety percent of people that come in have been smoking their whole lives,” said the 26-year-old, giving his name as Alex. “I wouldn’t be in business if it wasn’t for them.”

“I’d say 1 percent of my clients have a genuine hospital note. The other 99 percent come from these doctors who set up offices to give marijuana prescriptions all day,” he added.
Source.

November 18, 2009 – LOS ANGELES—Four years, six drafts and nearly 1,000 stores later, the City Council on Wednesday will consider a long-awaited, oft-debated medical marijuana ordinance whose provisions have shifted dramatically in recent days.

City Attorney Carmen Trutanich had sought to ban sales at dispensaries, but two city committees rejected the idea and suggested that cash could exchange hands as means for reimbursement but must comply with state law.

“The council is free to ignore our advice,” said David Berger, a special assistant to Trutanich whose office has revised the ordinance six times. “We respect that they are the policymakers. If they decide on something different that’s their prerogative.”

The dispute over what is permissible under state law has led to a two-year delay on an ordinance vote while a proliferation of pot shops—officials estimate as many as 600 over the past eight months alone—have opened across Los Angeles.

Authorities believe it has led to widespread abuse of a 1996 state ballot measure allowing sick people with referrals from doctors and an identification card to smoke marijuana. State law was amended in 2003 to allow collectives to provide pot grown by members but must be not-for-profit.

In response to the possible passage of the ordinance, Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley reiterated a pledge to target pot clinics that profit and sell to people who don’t qualify for medical marijuana.

Cooley said he believes state law authorizes the possession, use and cultivation of marijuana for medicinal purposes, but not the sale of the drug. Dispensary owners have argued they sell marijuana to their customers as a way to cover their costs.

“Any proposed ordinance allowing for the sales of marijuana is in direct conflict” with state law, Cooley said in a statement.

While other California cities such as San Francisco, Oakland and West Hollywood have been able to regulate medical marijuana, Los Angeles has fumbled to adopt guidelines.

In 2007, city officials approved a moratorium prohibiting new medical marijuana dispensaries. More than 180 clinics qualified to remain open, but many others took advantage of a loophole known as a “hardship exemption” that allowed them to open while awaiting city approval.

There are now as many as 1,000 marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles alone, far more than any other city in the nation and more than the number of Starbucks and public schools in the city. There were a mere four pot outlets in 2005 when city officials first discussed a local medical marijuana law.

Fourteen states, including California, permit medical marijuana. Pot, however, remains illegal under federal law.

Last month, a judge temporarily barred city officials from enforcing the moratorium, saying the City Council failed to follow state law when it extended an initial ban.

“To some extent, they have put themselves in this situation by failing to act sooner,” said Alex Kreit, an assistant professor and director of the Center for Law and Social Justice at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego. Kreit sits on a medical marijuana task force for the city of San Diego.

Medical marijuana advocates said they simply want clear regulations they can follow and Trutanich has misinterpreted state law in attempting to ban sales.

“The reason we have these problems is because the council failed to act in a timely manner,” said Dege Coutee, who runs the Patient Advocacy Network. “There was a void that needed to be filled and people went in and filled it.”

If the ordinance passes, the dispensaries would have to close until they comply with the new local law, Berger said. City officials would seek an injunction against those who don’t. Berger added he expects council members to discuss possibly capping the number of dispensaries allowed within city limits.

Daniel Sosa, who runs two dispensaries that opened before the city’s moratorium was enacted, said he’s unsure what will happen to his business given the dueling messages from the council and Cooley.

“It’s still very muddled,” Sosa said. “I can’t see how they are going to shut down the number of dispensaries out there.”

Caught in the middle are residents, some of whom support medical marijuana dispensaries but are concerned the clinics have contributed to blight in their neighborhoods.

David DeLaTorre, who lives near Dodger Stadium, said he believes council members have let the problem go unchecked and they should come up with solutions soon.

“Set up a district where these businesses can operate,” said DeLaTorre, 39, a father of two. “If we want dispensaries to operate, let’s change the U.S. Constitution. I’m not against it, under the right handling.” By GREG RISLING. Source.

October 25, 2009 – More than three-quarters of the voters in Los Angeles County want to see medical marijuana dispensaries regulated, rather than prosecuted and forced to close, according GYI0058684470to a poll released today by a national organization that supports marijuana legalization.

The poll, completed Monday and Tuesday, also found that 74% support the state’s medical marijuana law, while 54% want to see marijuana legalized, regulated and taxed.

The Marijuana Policy Project, based in Washington, D.C., commissioned the poll by an independent firm, Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, after Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley threatened all dispensaries in the county with prosecution.

Cooley and Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich argue that the stores, which now number in the hundreds, are selling marijuana for profit in violation of state law.

“I think the take-home message here is voters in L.A. County overwhelmingly support the state’s medical marijuana law. They think dispensaries, properly regulated, can be a part of that, and Mr. Cooley’s really out of step,” said Bruce Mirken, the California-based spokesman for the organization.

The poll of 625 voters found that 77% of voters want to regulate dispensaries, while 14% want them closed. Both Democrats (83%-7%) and Republicans (62%-30%) support regulation over prosecution. The Los Angeles City Council is on the verge of adopting regulations after two years of debate and almost 13 years after voters passed Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act.

The proposed law would ban sales of marijuana. Dispensary operators say they do not sell it, but collect donations to recoup their costs, but they fear the ordinance will be used against them.

Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the district attorney, said that Cooley merely intends to enforce state law. “Selling marijuana over the counter for profit is a violation of the law,” she said. “Mr. Cooley has said that, if it is found that the marijuana is being supplied in accord with the Compassionate Use Act, then those operations are not targets.”

The poll found support for treating marijuana similarly to alcohol among county voters across most demographics, except voters who are 65 or older and Republicans. Both groups oppose it by about a 10-point margin. Young people, voters between 18 and 34, strongly support legalization, 72%-18%.

Legalization supporters are collecting signatures for four different initiatives that could be on the ballot next year. The Marijuana Policy Project has reservations about moving forward, noting that younger voters typically turn out more heavily in presidential election years.

The poll underscores the growing support for legalization, but the majority is not a large one. “It’s a sign of huge progress,” Mirken said. “It’s not a sign that you are going to win.”

Mason-Dixon randomly selected voters from the county’s registration list and interviewed those who said they voted regularly. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
By John Hoeffel. Source.

LOS ANGELES — There are more marijuana stores here than public schools. Signs emblazoned with cannabis plants or green crosses sit next to dry cleaners, gas stations and Picture 25restaurants.

The dispensaries range from Hollywood-day-spa fabulous to shoddy-looking storefronts with hand-painted billboards. Absolute Herbal Pain Solutions, Grateful Meds, Farmacopeia Organica.

Cannabis advocates claim that more than 800 dispensaries have sprouted here since 2002; some law enforcement officials say it is closer to 1,000. Whatever the real number, everyone agrees it is too high.

And so this, too, is taken for granted: Crackdowns on cannabis clubs will soon come in this city, which has more dispensaries than any other.

For the first time, law enforcement officials in Los Angeles have vowed to prosecute medical marijuana dispensaries that turn a profit, with police officials saying they expect to conduct raids. Their efforts are widely seen as a campaign to sway the City Council into adopting strict regulations after two years of debate.

It appears to be working. Carmen A. Trutanich, the newly elected city attorney, recently persuaded the Council to put aside a proposed ordinance negotiated with medical marijuana supporters for one drafted by his office. The new proposal calls for dispensaries to have renewable permits, submit to criminal record checks, register the names of members with the police and operate on a nonprofit basis. If enacted, it is likely to result in the closing of hundreds of marijuana dispensaries.

Mr. Trutanich argued that state law permits the exchange of marijuana between growers and patients on a nonprofit and noncash basis only. Marijuana advocates say that interpretation would regulate dispensaries out of existence and thwart the will of voters who approved medical cannabis in 1996.

Whatever happens here will be closely watched by law enforcement officials and marijuana advocates across the country who are threading their way through federal laws that still treat marijuana as an illegal drug and state laws that are increasingly allowing medicinal use. Thirteen states have laws supporting medical marijuana, and others are considering new legislation.

No state has gone further than California, often described by drug enforcement agents as a “source nation” because of the vast quantities of marijuana grown here. And no city in the state has gone further than Los Angeles. This has alarmed local officials, who say that dispensary owners here took unfair advantage of vague state laws intended to create exceptions to marijuana prohibitions for a limited number of ill people.

“About 100 percent of dispensaries in Los Angeles County and the city are operating illegally,” said Steve Cooley, the Los Angeles County district attorney, who is up for re-election next year. “The time is right to deal with this problem.”

Mr. Cooley, speaking last week at a training luncheon for regional narcotics officers titled “The Eradication of Medical Marijuana Dispensaries in the City of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County,” said that state law did not allow dispensaries to be for-profit enterprises.

Mr. Trutanich, the city attorney, went further, saying dispensaries were prohibited from accepting cash even to reimburse growers for labor and supplies. He said that a recent California Supreme Court decision, People v. Mentch, banned all over-the-counter sales of marijuana; other officials and marijuana advocates disagree.

So far, prosecutions of marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles have been limited to about a dozen in the last year, said Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for Mr. Cooley. But Police Department officials said they were expecting to be called on soon to raid collectives.

“I don’t think this is a law that we’ll have to enforce 800 times,” said one police official, who declined to speak on the record before the marijuana ordinance was completed. “This is just like anything else. You don’t have to arrest everyone who is speeding to make people slow down.”

Don Duncan, a spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, a leader in the medical marijuana movement, said that over-the-counter cash purchases should be permitted but that dispensaries should be nonprofit organizations. He also said marijuana collectives needed more regulation and a “thinning of the herd.”
Skip to next paragraph
Enlarge This Image
Monica Almeida/The New York Times

“I am under no illusions that everyone out there is following the rules,” said Mr. Duncan, who runs his own dispensary in West Hollywood. “But just because you accept money to reimburse collectives does not mean you’re making profits.”

For marijuana advocates, Los Angeles represents a critical juncture — a symbol of the movement’s greatest success, but also its vulnerability.

More than 300,000 doctors’ referrals for medical cannabis are on file, the bulk of them from Los Angeles, according to Americans for Safe Access. The movement has had a string of successes in the Legislature and at the ballot box. In the city of Garden Grove, marijuana advocates forced the Highway Patrol to return six grams of marijuana it had confiscated from an eligible user. About 40 cities and counties have medical marijuana ordinances.

But there have also been setbacks. In June, a federal judge sentenced Charles C. Lynch, a dispensary owner north of Santa Barbara, to one year in prison for selling marijuana to a 17-year-old boy whose father had testified that they sought out medical marijuana for his son’s chronic pain. The mayor and the chief of police testified on behalf of Mr. Lynch, who was released on bail pending appeal.

And last month, San Diego police officers and sheriff’s deputies, along with agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration, raided 14 marijuana dispensaries and arrested 31 people. In an interview, Bonnie Dumanis, the district attorney for San Diego County, said that state laws governing medical marijuana were unclear and that the city had not yet instituted new regulations.

Ms. Dumanis said that she approved of medical marijuana clubs where patients grow and use their own marijuana, but that none of the 60 or so dispensaries in the county operated that way.

“These guys are drug dealers,” she said of the 14 that were raided. “I said publicly, if anyone thinks we’re casting too big a net and we get a legitimate patient or a lawful collective, then show us your taxes, your business license, your incorporation papers, your filings with the Department of Corporations.”

“If they had these things, we wouldn’t prosecute,” she said.

Marijuana supporters worry that San Diego may provide a glimpse of the near future for Los Angeles if raids here become a reality. But many look to Harborside Health Center in Oakland as a model for how dispensaries could work.

“Our No. 1 task is to show that we are worthy of the public’s trust in asking to distribute medical cannabis in a safe and secure manner,” said Steve DeAngelo, the pig-tailed proprietor of Harborside, which has been in business for three years.

Harborside is one of four licensed dispensaries in Oakland run as nonprofit organizations. It is the largest, with 74 employees and revenues of about $20 million. Last summer, the Oakland City Council passed an ordinance to collect taxes from the sale of marijuana, a measure that Mr. DeAngelo supported.

Mr. DeAngelo designed Harborside to exude legitimacy, security and comfort. Visitors to the low-slung building are greeted by security guards who check the required physicians’ recommendations. Inside, the dispensary looks like a bank, except that the floor is covered with hemp carpeting and the eight tellers stand behind identical displays of marijuana and hashish.

There is a laboratory where technicians determine the potency of the marijuana and label it accordingly. (Harborside says it rejects 80 percent of the marijuana that arrives at its door for insufficient quality.) There is even a bank vault where the day’s cash is stored along with reserves of premium cannabis. An armored truck picks up deposits every evening.

City officials routinely audit the dispensary’s books. Surplus cash is rolled back into the center to pay for free counseling sessions and yoga for patients. “Oakland issued licenses and regulations, and Los Angeles did nothing and they are still unregulated,” Mr. DeAngelo said. “Cannabis is being distributed by inappropriate people.”

But even Oakland’s regulations fall short of Mr. Trutanich’s proposal that Los Angeles ban all cash sales.

“I don’t know of any collective that operates in the way that is envisioned by this ordinance,” said Mr. Duncan, of Americans for Safe Access.

Christine Gasparac, a spokeswoman for State Attorney General Jerry Brown, said that after Mr. Trutanich’s comments in Los Angeles, law enforcement officials and advocates from around the state had called seeking clarity on medical marijuana laws.

Mr. Brown has issued legal guidelines that allow for nonprofit sales of medical marijuana, she said. But, she added, with laws being interpreted differently, “the final answer will eventually come from the courts.” By Jim Wilson. Source.

October 16, 2009 – The Wild West of Weed – The only job 31-year-old Jason Beck has ever had is selling weed. He started as a teenager from a trailer park in Pittsburg, Calif., outside Oakland, running what heJason-Beck-Medical-marijuana-wide-horizontal calls a shop in a box. A shoebox full of marijuana, a list of loyal customers, and a beeper were all he needed 15 years ago. Beck still sells pot, but now from a storefront on sunny Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. His Alternative Herbal Health Services was one of the first medical cannabis caregiver dispensaries to open up in the Los Angeles area in 2005. At the time, there were fewer than 20 of these legal pot shops in all of Southern California.

Today, L.A. is overrun with close to 1,000 of them. Ever since U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called off federal raids on dispensaries in February, the number of these businesses in L.A. has exploded in what’s being deemed “The Green Rush.” But California law prohibits medical-marijuana dispensaries from making profits; they must be run as nonprofit collectives that grow their own merchandise that they sell only to patients with state-issued medical-cannabis cards (available with a doctor’s recommendation). Many of the recent newcomers, however, are buying marijuana instead of growing their own, and marking it up for a profit. Unlike Oakland or San Francisco, or even nearby West Hollywood, L.A. has no local ordinance regulating dispensaries. After struggling for two years to draft some form of guidelines, the L.A. city council still has nothing on the books. In the interim, the city has become a cannabis free-for-all.

L.A. County District Attorney Steve Cooley, the same guy who ordered the arrest of Roman Polanski earlier this month in Switzerland, has grown weary of the party. “The vast, vast, vast majority, about 100 percent, of dispensaries in Los Angeles County and the city are operating illegally,” he told reporters on Oct. 8. “The time is right to deal with this problem.”

Anticipation of the coming crackdown angers Beck, who says a bunch of amateurs looking for a quick buck are ruining what he’s worked hard to establish as a legitimate, legal business in compliance with the state’s medical-marijuana laws. “Those of us who’ve been in this for a while, who’ve established ourselves, we’re pissed off because they’re riding on the coattails of the work we’ve put in,” he says. “They don’t know what it’s like to be raided. So, yeah, I’m all for them getting closed. Let them see how it feels.”

Beck’s shop was one of 11 Los Angeles-area dispensaries raided by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration on Jan. 17, 2007. As he recalls, DEA agents in black SWAT-team gear came smashing through his glass front door around 1 p.m. By then, Beck’s shop had been broken into twice already, so he had spent close to $90,000 upgrading security, reinforcing walls, adding bulletproof glass, and installing an electronic-buzzer system that locks the several doors patients must pass through to gain entry to his shop, and ultimately the back room where he keeps his cash and marijuana. When the federal agents came storming in, they found themselves immediately stuck in the small man trap that Beck installed as his first line of defense. It’s essentially a steel cage you walk into upon getting buzzed in at the front door. Once inside, patients show their medical-cannabis ID cards to the receptionist, who then buzzes them into the main area. The man trap is big enough for only about four people, so seven or eight DEA agents found themselves smushed on top of each other, faces pressed against the bars, guns drawn. Beck and his receptionist just sat there looking at them. “If we were real gangsta drug dealers, we could have sniped them all out,” he jokes.

Once they extricated themselves from Beck’s man trap, the agents stayed for four hours and detained everyone who was inside, handcuffing and questioning them all separately. They seized every ounce of marijuana, Beck says, about $500,000 worth, and all his cash too, about $25,000, though he later got an invoice from the DEA claiming they’d seized only $12,500. “Someone pocketed 12 grand,” he says. “How corrupt is that?” A DEA spokesperson wouldn’t address individual allegations, and would say only that all cash seized during raids is put into evidence bags and taken to a bank where it’s counted by bank officials and witnessed by DEA agents. Beck says they also cut all his security-camera wires and finished smashing the glass out of his front door before leaving, resulting in $20,000 in property damage.

Even though California legalized medical cannabis in 1996, and West Hollywood had adopted its own ordinance in 2006 regulating the operation of dispensaries, marijuana is still illegal as far as the federal government is concerned. And it remains the DEA’s job to enforce federal drug laws, which trump local and state laws. Still, some local officials were angry about the raids. “Anger is an understatement; we were outraged,” says John Duran, a West Hollywood city-council member who was mayor in 2007. “They gave us no heads-up, they came in at the last minute. It was ridiculous.”

Beck and other dispensary owners who were raided were never charged with a crime. The DEA says that charges have been filed against three individuals from the 2007 raids. “They just wanted to send a message and try to scare people,” says Don Duncan, whose L.A. dispensary was raided on July 25, 2007. He too was never charged.

Beck was back in business a week after the raid, as was JoAnna LaForce, whose dispensary, the Farmacy, located just down Santa Monica Boulevard, was raided that same day. She says the raid cost her $25,000 in property damage. “They threw everything everywhere and made an absolute mess of the place,” says LaForce, also not charged with a crime. “But we weathered the storm.” Over the past two years, Beck and LaForce say things have been pretty quiet. They maintained their nonprofit collective business model, saying they grow their own pot and sell it only to patients who registered with them and have medical-use cards issued by the state. On the advice of his lawyer, Beck deals only in cash. Since marijuana is illegal under federal law, and credit cards are usually issued by federally regulated banks, using them could potentially trigger a federal money-laundering case. So every month Beck takes a big trash bag of cash to his lawyer’s office, who then deposits the money in a trust and pays state sales tax from that.

After the raids, LaForce and Beck continued their efforts to become upstanding members of the business community. They joined the chamber of commerce, and now feel as entrenched as the Whole Foods down the block. The four medical-marijuana dispensaries on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood generate an estimated $4 million of local sales-tax revenue every year for the city, according to the proprietors. . “We’ve worked very hard here to establish protocols and standards of operation,” says LaForce. “And we’ve been very active in trying to establish a sensible ordinance for all of Los Angeles. But it just hasn’t happened, and now it’s like were back to Reefer Madness,” she says, referring to the church-sponsored anti-marijuana film made in 1936 that’s become a cult classic.

LaForce shares Beck’s animosity for the profiteers she says are taking advantage of the lack of a city ordinance to make a quick buck. She feels confident that when the raids do start up again, nonprofit collectives like hers and Beck’s will be spared. But that depends on whether law enforcement will differentiate between those that are operating illegally and those that have been in compliance with the local law. “We’re all a little more nervous these days,” she says. Duran says that West Hollywood city-council members have explicitly reminded their sheriff that marijuana is not a priority, and not to cooperate with the L.A.P.D. in any attempts to raid or shut down dispensaries. “But,” Duran adds, “Steve Cooley is our D.A. here in West Hollywood.” The D.A.’s office tells NEWSWEEK that Cooley believes dispensaries operating properly under the law should be safe. He just doesn’t know of any collectives that are currently operating as such.

As for Beck, he recently downloaded a Cannabis Club app for his iPhone that pinpoints the location of all the dispensaries around L.A. When he types in a ZIP code, Beck marvels at the hundreds of pushpins that go flying into almost every strip mall and shopping center and even residential neighborhoods. “We’re totally oversaturated,” he says. Just a few weeks ago, a shop opened up only a couple of blocks from Beck’s dispensary. He’s driven by a few times, and gone to its Web site. The place looks nice: flat-screen TVs, sofas and glass tables and plush carpets. It looks like an upscale hair salon. “They clearly put a lot of money into it,” Beck says. “We’ll see how long they last.” Source.

October 9, 2009 – Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said Thursday he will prosecute medical marijuana dispensaries for over-the-counter sales, targeting a practice that has become commonplacePicture 2 under an initiative approved by California voters more than a decade ago.

“The vast, vast, vast majority, about 100%, of dispensaries in Los Angeles County and the city are operating illegally, they are dealing marijuana illegally, according to our theory,” he said. “The time is right to deal with this problem.”

Cooley and Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich recently concluded that state law bars sales of medical marijuana, an opinion that could spark a renewed effort by law enforcement across the state to rein in the use of marijuana. It comes as polls show a majority of state voters back legalization of marijuana, and supporters are working to place the issue on the ballot next year.

The district attorney’s office is investigating about a dozen dispensaries, following police raids, and is considering filing felony charges against one that straddles the Los Angeles-Culver City line.

“We have our strategy and we think we are on good legal ground,” Cooley said.

Medical marijuana advocates say the prosecutors are misinterpreting the law.

“I’m confident that they are not right,” said Joe Elford, chief counsel for Americans for Safe Access. “If they are right, it would mean that thousands of seriously ill Californians for whom the Compassionate Use Act was intended to help would not be able to get the medicine that they need.”

Law enforcement officials have been frustrated by the explosion in the number of dispensaries in Southern California, arguing that most are for-profit enterprises that violate the 1996 voter initiative legalizing medical marijuana and the 2003 state law permitting collective cultivation. Cooley’s announcement, coming at a news conference that followed a training session he and Trutanich conducted for narcotics officers, dramatically raises the stakes.

In the city of Los Angeles, some estimates put the number of dispensaries as high as 800. The city allowed 186 to remain open under its 2007 moratorium, but hundreds of others opened in violation of the ban while the city did nothing to shut them down.

In August, Cooley and Sheriff Lee Baca sent a letter to all mayors and police chiefs in the county, saying that they believed over-the-counter sales were illegal and encouraging cities to adopt permanent bans on dispensaries.

Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at UCLA and an expert on drug policy, was not surprised that local prosecutors had decided to attack the rapid proliferation of marijuana stores.

“I think it’s a natural response to the rather flagrant marketing practices of a bunch of the dispensaries. The medical veneer has been wearing thinner and thinner,” he said. “I’ve always wondered why those things were legal when they didn’t look legal to me.”

Cooley said he believes that under state law, collectives must raise their own marijuana and can only recoup their costs. “That’s absolutely legal,” he said. “We’re going to respect that.”

But he said none of them currently do that.

The district attorney’s warning could make the situation more chaotic in Los Angeles, where the City Council has struggled for two years to devise an ordinance to control the distribution of medical marijuana.

In addition to prosecuting dispensaries, Cooley said he would consider going after doctors who write medical marijuana recommendations for healthy people. Medical marijuana critics argue that some doctors freely recommend the drug to people who are not ill.

Medical marijuana advocates celebrated a brief thaw in the enforcement climate after the Obama administration signaled earlier this year that it would not prosecute collectives that followed state law. That spurred many entrepreneurs to open dispensaries in Los Angeles. As stores popped up near schools and parks, neighborhood activists reacted with outrage and police took notice.

Councilman Dennis Zine, a key player on the issue at L.A. City Hall, welcomed Cooley’s decision to prosecute dispensaries. “There are many that are operating illegally and it’s not a secret,” he said, adding that he believes “a few” collectives in the city are operating legally.

Anticipating that police departments will ramp up raids on dispensaries, medical marijuana advocates reacted with dismay to Cooley’s announcement.

“What we’ll see is a big disruption,” said Don Duncan, the California director for Americans for Safe Access. He called Cooley’s decision “incredible” and said, “It certainly sounds scary.”

Duncan acknowledged that many dispensaries do not follow the law and urged Cooley and Trutanich to focus exclusively on them. “You don’t have to cast a net over the entire community, you can target the problem people and not take this extreme adversarial position,” he said. “Some good people are going to be caught in the crossfire.”

About 100 medical marijuana patients, activists and dispensary owners protested on a sidewalk outside the Montebello Country Club, where about 150 prosecutors and narcotics officers met. Motorists repeatedly honked and shook their fists in support as they rolled by, triggering cheers from the crowd.

Barry Kramer, the operator of California Patients Alliance, a collective on Melrose Avenue, said many dispensaries have responsibly regulated themselves for years in the vacuum left by the City Council’s inaction.

“I feel like that gets lost,” he said. “It’s frustrating to get painted with one brush by the city.”

Kramer said he believed that dispensaries would continue to operate. “People have found ways around marijuana laws for as long as there have been marijuana laws,” he said.

But he also said that stepped-up prosecutions could resuscitate the criminal market: “Things will go underground. We’ll see a lot more crime.”

When Californians voted for Proposition 215 in 1996, they made it legal for patients with a doctor’s recommendation and their caregivers to possess and raise pot for the patient’s medical use.

In 2003, the Legislature allowed patients and caregivers “collectively or cooperatively to cultivate marijuana for medical purposes” but said they could not do it for profit.

Cooley and Trutanich, after reviewing a state Supreme Court decision from last year, have concluded that the law protects collectives from prosecution only in the cultivation of marijuana, not for sales or distribution.

Medical marijuana advocates, however, note that the state currently requires dispensaries to collect sales taxes on marijuana, and that guidelines drawn up by the attorney general conclude that “a properly organized and operated collective or cooperative that dispenses medical marijuana through a storefront may be lawful.”

The guidelines allow collectives to take costs into account but do not deal directly with over-the-counter sales.

Jacob Appelsmith, special assistant attorney general, said Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown talked to Cooley on Thursday. “Our staffs are continuing to meet about these issues,” he said.

Source. By John Hoeffel