Image: Marijuana dispensary
Reed Saxon  /  AP File
An employee at the La Brea Collective medical marijuana dispensary in Los Angeles is seen helping clients select marijuana from jars in a counter on Nov. 17, 2009.
updated 1/26/2010 5:37:53 AM ET 2010-01-26T10:37:53

For the past five years, medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles have multiplied and gone largely unregulated as city officials struggled to adopt a law that would put clamps on a flourishing industry.

Not anymore.

With the expected passage of a medical marijuana ordinance by the City Council on Tuesday, hundreds of dispensaries would have to close their doors putting an end to the so-called "Green Rush" that swept through Los Angeles and much of the state.

Enforcing the ordinance, however, may take a Herculean effort by a cash-strapped city. No one is exactly sure how many pot clinics there are in Los Angeles — the best estimate is somewhere between 800 and 1,000 — and getting the owners to comply with the ordinance will likely be met with resistance.

"I don't want to say this is an impossible task, but it's going to take a lot more effort than maybe the city realizes at this point," said Robert Mikos, a law professor specializing in federalism and crime policy at Vanderbilt University Law School. "Just because the city says 'stop what you are doing,' doesn't mean they (dispensary owners) are going to give up easily."

One possible option for dispensaries is to seek an injunction that would stop the city from enforcing its ordinance. City officials could take similar action against unwilling pot clinics.

'Sensitive uses'
The ordinance would cap the number of dispensaries at 70, spreading them evenly throughout the city via its community districting plan. For instance, the Wilshire area west of downtown would have the most pot clinics — six — under the new law, while places such as free-spirited Venice, which has as many as 17 currently, would only have one.

City officials also would require dispensaries to be at least 1,000 feet from "sensitive uses" such as schools, parks and other gathering sites. Most clinics would have to relocate, presumably to industrial areas, a move criticized by some medical marijuana advocates who say patients will have to travel long distances to get their medicine.

The ordinance wouldn't take effect until city officials determine the registration fees collectives would have to pay. The city attorney's office estimates that enforcement won't take place for at least 45 days.

The number of clinics has exploded — more than 600 over the past 10 months alone — despite a 2007 city moratorium prohibiting new medical marijuana dispensaries. The shop owners took advantage of a loophole known as a hardship exemption that allowed them to open while awaiting city approval.

However, more than 180 clinics qualified to remain open because they came before the ban was enacted. About 137 of those dispensaries still exist and would be allowed to remain open if they meet other requirements in the new ordinance.

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City council members have fumbled with an ordinance for years, trying to come up with language that jibes with state law. Only four dispensaries were open in 2005, when discussions first began.

Hazy outlook
The outlook for medical marijuana in Los Angeles remains hazy. Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley has said he will target pot clinics that profit and sell to people who don't qualify for medical marijuana.

While the ordinance says no collective can operate for profit, "cash and in-kind contributions" as well as "reasonable compensation" would be allowed.

The ordinance, if passed by the council and signed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, follows a recent California Supreme Court decision that struck down a law seeking to impose limits on the amount of marijuana a patient can have. It also comes months before a possible ballot measure seeking the legalization of marijuana in the Golden State.

Fourteen states, including California, permit medical marijuana. Pot, however, remains illegal under federal law.

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