The slippery slope of marijuana regulation

Share via

There are about 120 Starbucks coffee outlets within the Los Angeles city limits. According to the most reliable estimates, there are somewhere between 900 and 1,000 medical marijuana dispensaries.

Mull over the implications of that comparison and you’re on the way to understanding why the City Council seems enmeshed in an endless wrangle over how to regulate the number and sites of the nonprofit cooperatives allowed by local ordinance to distribute cannabis to individuals with doctors’ prescriptions. So far, it’s been a debate whose observers could be forgiven for wondering whether they’d entered the council through a looking glass. All that’s missing is the Hookah-smoking Caterpillar.

Last week, for example, the lawmakers -- who are scheduled to take another cut at an ordinance today -- voted to cap the number of dispensaries at 70, though the 186 establishments that registered with the city after a poorly drafted 2007 “moratorium” on new dispensaries was ruled illegal will be allowed to stay open. Got that? The number is “capped” at 70, but 186 will be allowed to operate.


Today, the council again will take on the vexing question of whether to increase the distance between dispensaries and schools, parks, churches and private residences.

Councilman Jose Huizar told Time magazine this week that the council came up with a cap of 70 because that translates into two cooperatives for each of the city’s community planning districts, which should allow for increased oversight, even in these cash-strapped times. As The Times previously has reported, “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.”

Maybe there’s something to be said for medicine that gets sick people back on their feet and out for a little night life. Perhaps that’s why marijuana advocates are concerned that if the council adopts a requirement that dispensaries be located at least 1,000 feet from any private residence, it will push them into the handful of industrial spaces on the city’s margins. Perhaps.

Meanwhile, county Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, who must have time on his hands since his office ran out of violent felonies, devastating financial frauds and political corruption to prosecute, has decided to make “an issue” of the dispensaries. He says that if the council’s new ordinance diverges from the state statute, he’ll “ignore their act and enforce the law.” His protege, City Atty. Carmen Trutanich, is of one mind with the D.A. (Of course he is.)

Frankly, they’ll both need night-vision goggles to find the bright line in state law on this question. An official website maintained by the state attorney general, for example, says that even though federal authorities -- who flatly hold that cannabis has “no current effective medical use” -- argue that California’s medical marijuana law contradicts the Controlled Substances Act, no such contradiction exists. That’s because “California did not ‘legalize’ marijuana, but instead exercised the state’s reserved powers to not punish certain marijuana offenses under state law when a physician has recommended its use to treat a serious medical condition.” (In other contexts, that’s the sort of reasoning that made “Jesuitical” and “Pharisaical” pejorative adjectives.)

No one is quite sure how many of those physician recommendations have been made since 1996, when 55.6% of the state’s voters approved Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act, and authorized medical marijuana prescriptions. At the moment, there are 300,000 patients registered as part of a voluntary program created by Senate Bill 240 in 2003. Tens of thousands are Los Angeles County residents.


In 1996, medical marijuana was promoted as a substance that would alleviate the suffering of people going through chemotherapy or battling AIDS. Today, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, 40% of the prescriptions are for chronic pain, 22% for AIDS-related conditions, 15% for “mood disorders” and 23% for “other” illnesses. The source of the DEA’s numbers? Why, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

The real reason the City Council is having such a hellish time coming to grips with this issue is that this is one of those areas where social attitudes and thinking simply have moved beyond conventional legal thinking or, for that matter, the permissible language of politics. Medical marijuana was, from the start, a back door to legalization, and now it’s swung wide open. If we really believed cannabis was a normative medical remedy, it would be sold in pharmacies like everything else your doctor prescribes. Instead, the council is trying to regulate it in just the way we control bars or liquor stores or any other vendor of recreational intoxicants, while paying lip service to the really rather limited medicinal necessities.

A recent Field Poll found that 60% of Los Angeles County voters and 56% statewide favor legalizing and taxing marijuana. As The Times reported Tuesday, a proposition to do both those things already has qualified for next year’s ballot.

In the meantime, the council would be well advised to ignore Cooley and Trutanich and adopt sensible regulations that treat the dispensaries pretty much like bars -- allowing them to operate in appropriate areas but not to become public nuisances.