CALFORNIA : A medical marijuana success story : West Hollywood enforces a strict ordinance and eliminates the drama that plagues L.A.


A few miles from Los Angeles City Hall, a small experiment in marijuana regulation has been underway for years. While the state’s largest city passed a flawed moratorium, failed to enforce it, debated proposed rules endlessly and watched flummoxed as dispensaries multiplied, West Hollywood pressed ahead.

Confronted with its own dispensary explosion in 2005, the city surrounded by L.A. imposed a moratorium on dispensaries, clamped interim rules on the ones that were open, passed a strict ordinance and capped the number allowed at four, all within two years.

When the West Hollywood City Council updated its ordinance earlier this month, the vote was unanimous, no residents spoke in opposition and the city’s dispensary operators lined up in support.


Today, in contrast, two Los Angeles council committees will hold what is sure to be a boisterously contentious hearing as they try to finish an ordinance now in its fifth draft.

In West Hollywood, city officials say, it’s been more than two years since a resident has complained about a dispensary. Neighborhood watch leaders say their streets are safer because the dispensary guards are required to walk nearby blocks. School officials welcome dispensaries as neighbors. And the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, which patrols the city, says there have been no recent crimes at dispensaries and no calls from agitated neighbors.

“We’ve been on top of this from Day 1,” said Lisa Belsanti, a senior management analyst with the city who helped draw up its rules. “There’s a problem, but it’s in Los Angeles, it’s not in West Hollywood.”

Cities with no medical marijuana regulations, including Los Angeles, San Diego and Long Beach, have seen an outcry from neighborhoods upset that dispensaries open wherever they want, often in close proximity, and attract nuisances, such as traffic, and real dangers, such as robberies.

But some cities, notably San Francisco and Oakland, have tightly regulated their dispensaries, and officials there say they have had little or no trouble with them.

Although at 1.9 square miles and about 36,000 people West Hollywood is a fraction of L.A.'s size, it offers an example of how a city that adopted rules and enforced them has largely eliminated its problems.

“We’ve kept them on a short leash,” said City Councilman John Duran, who has been involved with medical marijuana issues for years. “Today, we have minimal complaints, and they are acting responsibly.”

West Hollywood -- with its large population of gays and seniors and its pride in its progressive politics -- welcomed medical marijuana as word spread that it can help AIDS patients and glaucoma sufferers. But it too experienced a neighborhood backlash as the number of dispensaries started to climb in 2004 and 2005.

Three appeared within a block of Fountain Day School. One, the Farmacy, was around the corner. Its customers lit up in a parking lot shared with the private school, upsetting parents.

“All of a sudden they started opening up boom, boom, boom, boom, boom,” said Andrew Rakos, the school’s general manager. “Our parent organization came to me and said we’re not happy about this. There was an immediate influx of a lot of unsavory people.”

The Farmacy is run by a pharmacist, JoAnna LaForce, who has treated critically ill patients with marijuana for more than 15 years. She contacted the school’s parent organization, offered tours of her store, hired security and banned smoking in the parking lot. The Farmacy, like the other dispensaries, belongs to the Chamber of Commerce and its manager serves on a community advisory board.

“We’re just part of the community, a part of the neighborhood. They don’t see us as a risk,” said LaForce, who has watched the situation in Los Angeles with dismay. She also has Farmacy dispensaries in Venice and Westwood that followed the rules to operate under the city’s moratorium.

Rakos is now one of the Farmacy’s most valuable supporters. Because it was within 500 feet of the school, the city wanted the Farmacy to move by the end of the year. But Rakos asked the City Council to make an exception, and it did. “We felt that it was important for the city to know that there are some businesses that are not only respectful, but listened to the needs of the community,” he said.

In Los Angeles, a controversial draft ordinance has ping-ponged between the council and the city attorney’s office. Neighborhood activists and dispensary operators have been largely excluded, except to speak at public hearings. West Hollywood officials, however, worked closely with residents, dispensary owners and the Sheriff’s Department.

The West Hollywood ordinance restricts where dispensaries can open, sets security requirements, limits hours and bans on-site consumption. It goes further than the proposed Los Angeles ordinance to ensure that dispensaries are responsible neighbors.

The dispensaries must provide nearby residents with the name and phone number of a contact person. To discourage robberies, dispensaries must deposit each day’s cash. Security guards have to patrol a two-block radius to prevent loitering and smoking, and guards must be unarmed. “We don’t want the wild, wild West shootouts over marijuana and cash,” Duran said.

The city also requires the dispensary operators to meet regularly with city officials to discuss problems. Those meetings are now very short. “We go in there for 10 minutes,” LaForce said, “and they say -- the sheriffs in there -- any problems? No. Any concerns? No.”

City officials were alarmed recently when Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said he believed most dispensaries were illegal and threatened to prosecute them. But Sheriff Lee Baca, who has advised cities to ban dispensaries, said he considers West Hollywood a model and even suggested Los Angeles adopt the same ordinance.

Baca said his deputies work closely with the city’s dispensaries. “I know they’re transparent, and I think the key is that our people can go in there at any time and look at their documentation,” he said. “What we’re interested in is organizations that try to blend commercial sales with medical sales. That’s clearly illegal.”

West Hollywood has four approved dispensaries, all on busy Santa Monica Boulevard.

Don Duncan, the area’s most visible medical marijuana advocate as the California director for Americans for Safe Access, runs the unflashy Los Angeles Patients & Caregivers Group. A security guard is always on the sidewalk in front of the cannabis-green storefront.

“We haven’t had a complaint in three years,” Duncan said.

The Farmacy, unlike most outlets, leaves its door open, inviting passersby to check out its surf-and-Buddha-influenced vibe. Alternative Herbal Health Services, across the street, is more discreet, with a colorful sign much like those found at natural food stores.

Near the west end of town is the Zen Healing Collective, with an enormous neon cannabis leaf in the window.

A fifth dispensary, the Sunset Super Shop, which city officials want to shut down, occupies a metaphorical sweet spot on the Sunset Strip between the Hustler Hollywood boutique (sex) and the Whisky a Go Go (rock ‘n’ roll).

One issue still troubles some West Hollywood officials: that people exploit the state’s medical marijuana laws to buy pot simply to get high or to resell. “There are a lot of people that hang around that look to us as undesirables, but we don’t really get many complaints from the community,” said sheriff’s Lt. Dave Smith.

Duran believes the downside does not outweigh the benefit of giving truly sick people safe access to marijuana and creating a system that allows the city to monitor sales.

“We’re the home of the Sunset Strip,” he said. “We’ve had people smoking marijuana on Sunset since 1920. That’s not going to change.”