Marijuana Only for the Sick?

Oct 8, 2012

One year after fed­eral law enforce­ment offi­cials began crack­ing down on California’s med­ical mar­i­juana indus­try with a series of high-profile arrests around the state, they finally moved into Los Ange­les last month, giv­ing 71 dis­pen­saries until Tues­day to shut down. At the same time, because of a well-organized push by a new coali­tion of med­ical mar­i­juana sup­port­ers, the City Coun­cil last week repealed a ban on the dis­pen­saries that it had passed only a cou­ple of months ear­lier. Despite years of try­ing fruit­lessly to reg­u­late med­ical mar­i­juana, Cal­i­for­nia again finds itself in a marijuana-laced chaos over a boom­ing and divi­sive indus­try. Nobody even knows how many med­ical mar­i­juana dis­pen­saries are in Los Ange­les. Esti­mates range from 500 to more than 1,000. The only cer­tainty, sup­port­ers and oppo­nents agree, is that they far out­num­ber Star­bucks. “That’s the ongo­ing, ‘Alice in Won­der­land’ cir­cus of L.A.,” said Michael Larsen, pres­i­dent of the Neigh­bor­hood Coun­cil in Eagle Rock, a middle-class com­mu­nity that has 15 dis­pen­saries within a one-and-a-half-mile radius of the main com­mer­cial area, many of them near houses. “Peo­ple here are des­per­ate, and there’s noth­ing they can do.” Though the neighborhood’s dis­pen­saries were among those ordered to close by Tues­day, many are still oper­at­ing. As he looked at a young man who bounded out of the Together for Change dis­pen­sary on Thurs­day morn­ing, Mr. Larsen said, “I’m going to go out on a limb, but that’s not a can­cer patient.” In the biggest push against med­ical mar­i­juana since Cal­i­for­nia legal­ized it in 1996, the fed­eral author­i­ties have shut at least 600 dis­pen­saries statewide since last Octo­ber. California’s four United States attor­neys said the dis­pen­saries vio­lated not only fed­eral law, which con­sid­ers all pos­ses­sion and dis­tri­b­u­tion of mar­i­juana to be ille­gal, but state law, which requires oper­a­tors to be non­profit pri­mary care­givers to their patients and to dis­trib­ute mar­i­juana strictly for med­ical pur­poses. While announc­ing the actions against the 71 dis­pen­saries, André Birotte Jr., the United States attor­ney for the Cen­tral Dis­trict of Cal­i­for­nia, indi­cated that it was only the begin­ning of his cam­paign in Los Ange­les. Pros­e­cu­tors filed asset for­fei­ture law­suits against three dis­pen­saries and sent let­ters warn­ing of crim­i­nal charges to the oper­a­tors and land­lords of 68 oth­ers, a strat­egy that has closed nearly 97 per­cent of the tar­geted dis­pen­saries else­where in the dis­trict, said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the United States attor­ney. Vague state laws gov­ern­ing med­ical mar­i­juana have allowed recre­ational users of the drug to take advan­tage of the dis­pen­saries, say sup­port­ers of the Los Ange­les ban and the fed­eral crack­down. Here on the board­walk of Venice Beach, pitch­men dressed all in mar­i­juana green approach passers-by with offers of a $35, 10-minute eval­u­a­tion for a med­ical mar­i­juana rec­om­men­da­tion for every­thing from can­cer to appetite loss. Nearly 180 cities across the state have banned dis­pen­saries, and law­suits chal­leng­ing the bans have reached the State Supreme Court. In more lib­eral areas, some 50 munic­i­pal­i­ties have passed med­ical mar­i­juana ordi­nances, but most have sus­pended the reg­u­la­tion of dis­pen­saries because of the fed­eral offen­sive, accord­ing to Amer­i­cans for Safe Access, a group that pro­motes access to med­ical mar­i­juana. San Fran­cisco and Oak­land, the fiercest defend­ers of med­ical mar­i­juana, have con­tin­ued to issue per­mits to new dis­pen­saries. In 2004, shortly after the state effec­tively allowed the open­ing of store­front dis­pen­saries, there were only three or four in Los Ange­les, experts said. The num­ber soon swelled into the hun­dreds before the city imposed a mora­to­rium. But dis­pen­saries con­tin­ued to pro­lif­er­ate by exploit­ing a loop­hole in the mora­to­rium even as law­suits restricted the city’s abil­ity to pass an ordi­nance. Over the sum­mer, the City Coun­cil voted to ban dis­pen­saries. Antic­i­pat­ing the ban, the med­ical mar­i­juana indus­try “that his­tor­i­cally had not worked together very well” began orga­niz­ing a coun­ter­at­tack, said Dan Rush, an offi­cial with the United Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers Union, which formed a coali­tion with Amer­i­cans for Safe Access and the Greater Los Ange­les Col­lec­tive Alliance, a group of dis­pen­sary own­ers. The coali­tion raised $250,000, mostly from dis­pen­saries, to gather the sig­na­tures nec­es­sary to place a ref­er­en­dum to over­turn the ban on the bal­lot next March, said Don Dun­can, Cal­i­for­nia direc­tor for Amer­i­cans for Safe Access. Instead of allow­ing the ref­er­en­dum to pro­ceed in March, when elec­tions for mayor and City Coun­cil seats will also be held, the coun­cil on Tues­day voted to sim­ply rescind the ban. José Huizar, one of only two coun­cil mem­bers to vote against the repeal, and the strongest backer of the ban, said the city was not in a posi­tion to fight an increas­ingly well-organized indus­try. Mr. Huizar said California’s med­ical mar­i­juana laws, con­sid­ered the nation’s weak­est, must be changed to bet­ter con­trol the pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion of mar­i­juana, as well as limit access to only real patients. “Unless that hap­pens, local cities are going to con­tinue to play the cat-and-mouse game with the dis­pen­saries,” he said, adding that the indus­try had fought attempts here to reg­u­late it. “These are folks who are just out to pro­tect their prof­its, and they do that by hav­ing as lit­tle reg­u­la­tion or over­sight as pos­si­ble by the City of Los Ange­les.” But coali­tion offi­cials say they favor stricter reg­u­la­tions here.Rigo Valdez, direc­tor of orga­niz­ing for the local union, which rep­re­sents 500 dis­pen­sary work­ers in Los Ange­les, said he would sup­port an ordi­nance restrict­ing the num­ber of dis­pen­saries to about 125 and keep­ing them away from schools and one another. “We would be able to respect com­mu­ni­ties by stay­ing away from sensitive-use areas while pro­vid­ing safe access for med­ical mar­i­juana patients,” he said. Such an ordi­nance would shut down many dis­pen­saries cater­ing to recre­ational users, said Yamileth Bolanos, pres­i­dent of the Greater Los Ange­les Col­lec­tive Alliance and owner of a dis­pen­sary, the Pure­Life Alter­na­tive Well­ness Cen­ter. “I felt we needed a med­ical sit­u­a­tion with respect, not with all kinds of music going, tat­toos and pierc­ings in the face,” she said. “We’re nor­mal peo­ple. Nor­mal patients can come and acquire med­i­cine.” But the hun­dreds of dis­pen­saries that would be put out of busi­ness will fight the fed­eral crack­down, as some are already doing. In down­town Los Ange­les, where most of the dis­pen­saries were included in the order to close, work­ers were ren­o­vat­ing the store­front of the Down­town Col­lec­tive. Inside, house music was being played in a lobby dec­o­rated to con­jure “Scar­face,” a poster of which hung on a wall. “We don’t worry about this,” the man­ager said of the fed­eral offen­sive, declin­ing to give his name. “It’s between the lawyers.” David Welch, a lawyer who is rep­re­sent­ing 15 of the 71 dis­pen­saries and who is involved in a law­suit chal­leng­ing a ban at the State Supreme Court, said the fed­eral clam­p­down would fail. “Med­ical mar­i­juana dis­pen­saries are very much like what they dis­trib­ute: they’re weeds,” he said. “You cut them down, you leave, and then they sprout back up.” A ver­sion of this arti­cle appeared in print on Octo­ber 8, 2012, on page A16 of the New York edi­tion with the head­line: Mar­i­juana Only for the Sick? A Farce, Some in Los Ange­les Say. Source: New York Times (NY) Author: Norim­itsu Onishi Pub­lished: Octo­ber 8, 2012 Copy­right: 2012 The New York Times Com­pany Con­tact: letters@​nytimes.​com Web­site: http://​www​.nytimes​.com/

 Marijuana Only for the Sick?

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Mar­i­juana Only for the Sick?

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