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.

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December 3, 2009 – Marijuana is California’s largest agricultural commodity with $14 billion in sales yearly, distancing itself from the state’s second largest—milk and cream—which bring in $7.3 billion a year. But California’s coffers only receive a fraction of the marijuana sales, $200 million coming from the sale of medical marijuana. That could all change with Assemblyman Tom Ammiano’s (D-San Francisco) Marijuana Control, Regulation and Education Act (AB 390).

Since February, when the bill was introduced, it has made little headway in the Legislature. But in October, a hearing on the bill was held by the Public Safety Committee; marking the first time a legislative committee held a hearing on marijuana legalization.

AB 390 would create a system that would regulate marijuana much like alcohol is regulated. Those over the age of 21 could purchase pot from vendors with licenses to do so. The state’s Legislative Analyst and the Board of Equalization have estimated that pot sales could bring up to $1.3 billion in revenue yearly. That number is based off a proposed $50-per-oz. levy placed on marijuana purchases and sales tax.

With a projected deficit of $20 billion facing the state next fiscal year, sources of guaranteed revenue are needed. But there are those that believe that the social issues legalizing pot could have far outweigh any economic benefits.

“Why add another addictive element to our society? I don’t think we should criminalize marijuana, but I don’t think having marijuana where you can buy it like cigarettes or alcohol is something we ought to be doing as a society. I believe we are moving in the wrong direction on that,” said Steve Francis, a former San Diego mayoral candidate and founder of the site KeepComingBack.com—a site that focuses on news and research of alcohol and drug addiction.

Francis says that legalizing marijuana would ultimately cost the state money. He cited a report issued by the Marin Institute that found the economic cost of alcohol use is $38 billion annually, with the state covering $8.3 billion for health-care treatment of alcohol-caused illnesses, plus crime costs, traffic incidents and reduced worker productivity. The taxes and fees collected from alcohol sales only cover 22 percent of total government costs. He says there is every reason to believe the same would happen with marijuana.

“Whatever taxes the author of the legislation thinks we are going to collect on the taxation of marijuana will be very little compared to the social costs on California,” he said.

But the economic impact legalizing marijuana could have goes beyond taxation. Nearly a fifth of California’s 170,000 inmates are locked up because of drug-related crimes. Although most are convicted on crimes more severe than possession, legalizing marijuana would save the state $1 billion in law enforcement and corrections costs.

Orange County Superior Court Judge James Gray says the best solution is to repeal the prohibition of marijuana, allowing the substance to become regulated and less available to children.

“We couldn’t make this drug any more available if we tried,” he said in TIME. “Unfortunately, every society in the history of mankind has had some form of mind-altering, sometimes addictive substance to use, misuse, abuse or get addicted to. Get used to it. They’re here to stay. So let’s try to reduce those harms, and right now we couldn’t do worse if we tried.”

Even if California were to legalize marijuana, there are those that believe that the gray area between federal and state law would only widen. Since California’s Compassionate Use Act was passed in 1996, medicinal marijuana has become more accessible to those need it. But it has opened the gates of confusion, as federal laws still consider marijuana illegal. In fact, cannabis is described as a Schedule 1 drug by the federal Controlled Substances Act, meaning it has no medical use and cannot be prescribed by a physician. Many California municipalities have been reluctant to allow medical marijuana dispensaries, even though they were legalized 13 years ago.

There has been some indication that the federal government is starting to ease its control of marijuana. A few days after Ammiano introduced AB 390, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that states should be allowed to determine their own rules for medical marijuana and that federal raids on dispensaries would stop in California. President Obama’s nomination of Gil Kerlikowske to be the so-called drug czar and head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy indicated that a softer federal stance on marijuana is being taken. Kerlikowske is the former police chief in Seattle, where he made it clear that going after marijuana possession was not a priority for his department.

A vote by the Public Safety Committee on AB 390 is expected in January. Ammiano said the bill could take between a year and two years before it is heard or voted on in the Legislature. Until then, the debate over decriminalizing marijuana will continue amidst one of California’s worst economic times. BY Landon Bright Source.

November 25, 2009 – Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa urged the City Council on Wednesday toadopt a medical marijuana ordinance that would put a limit on the number of dispensaries.

“We have a right as a city to cap the number,” he said, saying that a cap was “without question” needed to reduce the number to a level that the Police Department and city officials can adequately monitor. “Communities have a right to protect the character of those communities and the security of those neighborhoods.”

The mayor declined to say what he thought the cap should be. “I can tell you that the current number of 800, or whatever, 900, is way beyond what any city should be able to accept,” he said.

The council, which debated its draft ordinance Tuesday, instructed city officials to study a citywide cap between 70 and 200 dispensaries, and separate caps, set by population, for each of the city’s 35 community plan areas or 21 police divisions.

A number of cities have caps, but most of them are much smaller than Los Angeles. Oakland, the largest city to impose a cap, allows four.

Villaraigosa, who has to approve the ordinance, said the council needs to write one that does not allow dispensaries to sell marijuana in a way that violates state law.

Council members decided Tuesday not to ban medical marijuana sales, disregarding the advice of the city attorney and the Los Angeles County district attorney, who believe the law makes any sales illegal.

Instead, the council adopted a provision that allows cash contributions for marijuana, which was a compromise that members believe will allow sales to continue and the city attorney’s top aides said would not run counter to state law.

Villaraigosa said he had not reviewed the provision. “I’ve been dealing with a bunch of other things all day long,” he said in a short interview outside his City Hall office.

Although there is debate about whether the law allows sales, the law is clear that dispensaries cannot make a profit. Villaraigosa said he believed many in the city were violating the requirement.

“People are trying to drive a truck through loopholes, and when you have that number it makes it very difficult for us,” he said.

john.hoeffel@latimes.com

November 23, 2009 – Patients with a doctor’s recommendation can legally possess and smoke marijuana in California for medical purposes. But where do they get their pot? The recent crackdown on marijuana dispensaries in San Diego has raised questions about legality of growing it and selling it.

California law says patients and caregivers can form collectives or cooperatives to cultivate marijuana for medical purposes. And that’s what Josh Bilben said he’s doing. He said he’s providing a place for patients, who don’t grow, to get medication from people who do.”

“One of the big concerns that communities, city planner, everybody has is where is this coming from,”said Bilben. “And what I’m able to say is this is coming from right here. No other place.”

Bilben is the director of Delta Nine Therapy, a medical marijuana collective in San Diego. He spoke as he pushed aside a metal cage door and unzipped a plastic sheet, that covers the inside of a seven by seven foot room containing 24 marijuana plants. The room is one of two locations where his collective grows product. Banks of lights hover over the plants. A fan keeps the air moving and a humidifier puts out a stream of vapor. Bilben says he’s growing a variety of plants.

“Now the Indica, the Purple Kush… when you take that it basically, in stoner terms, is called a couch lock,” said Bilben. “You sit on the couch. You don’t get up. You don’t really think about a whole lot. Like I said, the purple Kush is really good for chronic pain.”

The collection of plants doesn’t look like very much. But Bilben hopes, once the plants reach their flowering apex, they will provide ten pounds of smokable buds for him and three other patients. The collective charges its members 18 dollars a gram for Purple Kush to cover the cost of production.

In September, San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis announced raids on 14 medical marijuana operations. She accused the dispensaries of earning a profit and selling to anyone who came in the door, both of which violate state law. Dumanis and police chief Bill Landsdowne went on to say they knew of no medical marijuana dispensaries in San Diego that were following the law.

But Josh Bilben believes he is following the law. Will Johnson does too. Johnson is director of the Kind Gardeners Collective, which grows plants in several San Diego locations.

“We have somebody’s patio. Somebody’s spare bedroom. We have an area in a commercial office. And this next month we’ll have the basement of a residential home,” said Johnson.

Johnson speaks from the patio of his Kensington home, located on the same street where the San Diego mayor resides. The growth of the medical marijuana business has raised concerns that dispensaries have gotten marijuana from illegal sources. Johnson says that’s certainly possible.

“Is there a loophole where the cartel can come in and join the collective, and then start supplying the collective? I can imagine that,” he said. “But think about that. Because we’re not talking about Mexican pot being brought up here, because no dispensary is going to sell Mexi. It’s crap.”

The tussle over medical marijuana in California heated up last week when the District Attorney of Los Angeles said his office would prosecute any collective that sold marijuana. In September, San Diego DA Bonnie Dumanis said patients who need medical marijuana should grow their own.

But while state guidelines require marijuana operations to be non-profit, they do not say sales are illegal. Josh Bilben points out his marijuana collective generates state sales tax. Alex Kreit, the chairman of San Diego Medical Marijuana Task Force, adds that the law makes no requirement that patients just grow their own. He makes the comparison between a marijuana cooperative and a food coop.

“Anyone who’s been a member of a food cooperative knows, it’s not like everyone who’s a member has to come in and grow their own turnips and grow their own radishes,” said Kreit. “I think that is just not consistent with what is meant by a collective and cooperative, and what the law contemplates as a collective and cooperative.”

The task force is writing recommendations to the San Diego City Council as to how medical marijuana businesses should be permitted and regulated. By Tom Fudge. 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.


With a philosophy seemingly diametrically opposed to that of elected law enforcement officials in Los Angeles, the attorney general of Colorado, John Suthers (a Republican), has advised the governor of that state that medical marijuana sales should be regulated and taxed like alcohol and tobacco (and not tax- exempt like pharmaceuticals are, as medical cannabis is not prescribed per se, but “recommended” by doctors). This plan seems consistent with the stark reality in these dark times that state and county governments need to seek new avenues of public funding that will not prove to be politically unpopular. Medical cannabis activists have long been pro-taxation, as it confers legitimacy on the space.

The taxation of medical marijuana sales is something that we hear a lot about in California, and the above graphic gives some idea of how much money would be left on the table should medical marijuana be banned — or merely hounded and harassed out of business– here in Los Angeles. City Atty. Carmen Trutanich and Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley have declared their intentions to continue fighting the medical marijuana dispensaries, but it’s important to keep in mind that 77% of Los Angeles residents indicated that they were for the regulation and taxation of dispensaries, according to a recent Mason-Dixon poll.

No matter what sort of spin you put on the issue, ignoring the revenue-creating potential of taxing cannabis sales — which will continue, legally or otherwise — hardly seems prudent when we live in an era in which local governments can’t afford to fix potholes or hire schoolteachers.

By Richard Metzger 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.