The Los Angeles City Council voted 14 to 0 last Tuesday in favor of a new ban on medical marijuana dispensaries. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa supports the measure and is expected to sign it. Los Angeles is not only the state’s largest city, it is also a major hub of medical marijuana. There are over 760 registered dispensaries in the city, along with an estimated 200 without proper registration. By comparison, the Bay Area is home to about 12 dispensaries. Under Los Angeles’ new policy, all of the dispensaries, regardless of registration status, will be contacted and ordered to shut down immediately.
The measure is partly a response to public complaints about medical marijuana use around the storefronts, although specifically restricting the smoking of marijuana in public does not appear to have been considered. Others claim that recreational users, not just legitimate patients, obtain their marijuana there. While there is scant evidence to support these claims, it is unclear what harm this would cause in communities.
Any increase in market share by legitimate marijuana distributors would cut into the profits of illicit market sources, and law enforcement would hopefully be interested in taking funds away from gangsters. Police Chief Charlie Beck, however, has stated his support for the measure, referring to marijuana as “high-level narcotics,” a comment demonstrating his questionable understanding of the drug.
The ban, which some refer to as a “gentle ban,” allows medical marijuana patients and their caregivers to cultivate and share marijuana — but only in groups of three or fewer people. The LA council also voted to instruct the city to develop a plan to allow 170 specific dispensaries to remain open. However, CouncilmanPaul Koretz, who initially voted against the ban, admitted that the council has now “shut off almost every way that a normal person can get access to marijuana. It will be a ban until otherwise noted.”
Upon passage, Councilman Jose Huizar, author of the ban and opponent of any measure that would allow dispensaries to remain open, remarked in a bit of unintentional irony, “Relief is on its way.” With the apparently imminent disappearance of so many marijuana dispensaries, relief for thousands of patients is apparently on its way out.
Medical marijuana activists interviewed questioned the feasibility of essentially expecting one of every three patients or caregivers to grow their own marijuana, citing significant expenses and time commitments involved in cultivation. Some doctors understandably expressed concern over patients having their access to medical marijuana seriously restricted.
Unfortunately, the city doesn’t seem concerned that the ban will further enrich illicit suppliers, to whom many patients will now presumably turn to in order to obtain their medicine. Advocates plan to appeal the ban, and its legal status is already under question, as Jacob Sullum at Reason explains in detail. Pending court cases may invalidate both the L.A. city ban and the recent L.A. county ban as well.