L.A.’s reefer madness

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The Los Angeles City Council has decided that leaving medical marijuana dispensaries unregulated and uncontrolled is what is best for L.A. residents. On Tuesday, as reported by The Times, council members voted 14 to 0 to no longer be in the business of ensuring that dispensaries are well run and that patients have safe access to medicine.

This will not eliminate dispensaries in Los Angeles. Rather, the City Council’s action will only eliminate the most transparent, compliant, well-intentioned facilities. Critics of dispensaries might see their concerns come to fruition. Once the regulation is stripped away, there will be no way of ensuring that those providing cannabis are operating in a safe, patient-friendly environment. This may even encourage the proliferation of the very types of facilities that Los Angeles is taking pains to avoid. Not every dispensary has the best of intentions, but the ones that do favor regulation.

But there is something deeper and more sinister at work. It is the constant framing of dispensaries as being crime-ridden, cash-hungry places of ill repute that attract the lowest forms of society, and through their seduction turn healthy young people into hopeless pot fiends. It sounds like something out of “Reefer Madness,” but no matter how strongly the evidence shows the positive impact that dispensaries can have on communities, drug warriors insist on using such propaganda.

PHOTOS: L.A.’s marijuana dispensaries by type

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck declared support for the ban, accusing dispensaries of being the sites of burglaries, armed robberies and even murder, although he admits it is difficult to draw a direct correlation between dispensaries and crime.

To move past the misinformation that paints dispensaries as threats to communities, centers of corruption and havens for criminals, it’s important to look at the facts. It’s time to erase the negative image of dispensaries and embrace the positive impact these facilities have had on communities willing to regulate them.


A 2010 report from the Denver Police Department showed that 16.8% of medical marijuana dispensaries were robbed over a year, a lower rate than banks (33.7%) and liquor stores (19.7%). Beck himself was singing a different tune a few years ago when he stated that “most marijuana clinics are not typically the magnets for crime that critics portray.”

In 2009, the LAPD received reports of 71 robberies at the more than 350 banks in the city, compared to 47 robberies at the more than 800 medical marijuana dispensaries.

Beck’s own attempt to link dispensaries to crime at that time was an admitted failure. He said: “I have tried to verify that [dispensaries are linked to crime] because that, of course, is the mantra. It doesn’t really bear out.” His acknowledgment that it is difficult to draw a correlation between dispensaries and crime is for a good reason: There isn’t one. A recent research report from the UCLA School of Public Affairs found no relationship between the number of dispensaries in an area and violent or property crime.

But simply escaping the negative image is not enough. This campaign against dispensaries robs thousands of ill Californians of the chance to get support from other patients and of access to alternative healthcare services. For patients diagnosed with a chronic or terminal illness, included in the support they receive from dispensary services is support from fellow patients experiencing similar physical and psychological symptoms.

Dispensaries can also be a conduit to other services, such as healthcare, counseling and substance abuse treatment. They help patients with little or no income. In a recent survey of 303 medical marijuana patients, 62% indicated a desire to participate in free clinical services at their dispensary, and about 20% indicated interest in participating in dispensary-based social services.

Let’s focus on the facts, not fiction. Dispensaries are burglarized at lower rates than banks and liquor stores. Peer-reviewed research has found no correlation between dispensaries and violent or property crime.

Dispensaries do, however, encourage socialization among those isolated by illness, provide a safe environment for patients to access their medicine, offer alternative and holistic health services to ill people who may otherwise not be able to afford them, and act as a bridge to mental health and substance abuse counseling services.

Los Angeles has fallen victim to reefer madness, and in doing so, has eliminated a vital health service from the community.


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Amanda Reiman is a policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance.


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