May 21, 2010

Hey DC, Good Luck With That Medical Pot

Two weeks ago, the DC City Council approved the use of marijuana by patients with certain illnesses. Based on what has happened with medical marijuana in Los Angeles, DCers may be in for a wild ride.

California approved the use of marijuana for medical purposes in 1996, for "seriously ill Californians." A subsequent law made clear that medical pot dispensaries had to operate as non-profit "collectives." However, possession and use of marijuana for any reason, even medical purposes, is illegal under federal law, so there is always the potential for the feds to come cracking down.

In Los Angeles and other California cities, medical marijuana dispensaries -- identified by their signs with green crosses -- began sprouting up. In 2007, the Los Angeles City Council passed an interim ordinance to regulate the burgeoning medical pot dispensaries, establishing a moratorium on new dispensaries. The L.A. moratorium allowed only the existing 186 registered dispensaries to operate. However, the moratorium contained a loophole permitting dispensaries to apply for "hardship exemptions." Over 500 dispensaries applied for the exemptions, and were left alone while their cases were pending. In the meantime, dispensaries and doctors proliferated in the Los Angeles area, with estimates of as many as 1,000 dispensaries operating locally.

By 2009, things were out of control. Whenever I went to the beach in the L.A. area, pot was permeating everywhere. I called it the "Summer of Pot." On Venice Beach, bikini-clad girls on roller skates lured passers-by into a giant dispensary right on the beach. People joked about getting -- or got -- prescriptions for pot based on phony or exaggerated ailments. Fairly or unfairly, medical pot in Los Angeles gained a reputation as a giant scam being used more for recreational than medical purposes. Indeed, the dispensaries had lists of doctors to got to in order to get the prescriptions, and I never heard of those doctors and dispensaries turning anyone down.

But every bubble bursts, and so did L.A.'s pot party. First, L.A.'s City Attorney, backed up by the Los Angeles County District Attorney, declared that most of L.A.'s medical marijuana dispensaries were really for-profit pot shops in violation of California law. The pair vowed to prosecute offending dispensaries. They pushed the City Council, and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, to crack down on the pot dispensaries. Earlier this year, the Los Angeles City Council passed, and Mayor Villaraigosa signed, a new medical marijuana ordinance containing strict zoning requirements (no dispensaries allowed within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, libraries, churches, etc.), and ordered the closure of all but the original batch of dispensaries fully registered with the City. A couple of weeks ago, the City sent letters to over 400 dispensaries in Los Angeles, ordering them to shut down by June 7. Hundreds more such letters are likely to follow.

But now, Los Angeles medical pot smokers are pissed. They had something, and it's being taken away, or at least it will be harder to get. Some of the dispensaries can be expected to the sue the City rather than quietly shutting down. Considering that many of them were left to operate for years, they may have a good case.

And this November, a statewide voter initiative to legalize small quantities of pot for use by adults for any purposes, even recreational, will be on the ballot in California. But as DC residents could probably tell Californians, that kind of party would be too much fun for the feds to permit.

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