LA City Council to debate medical marijuana regulations on Wednesday

A man holds a placard advertising medical marijuana outside an evaluation clinic on Venice Beach in Los Angeles on October 9, 2009.
A man holds a placard advertising medical marijuana outside an evaluation clinic on Venice Beach in Los Angeles on October 9, 2009. Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

[Update at 4 p.m. Monday, Nov. 16, 2009] As hundreds of medical marijuana patients and providers overflowed Los Angeles City Council chambers today, two key council committees rejected an outright ban on the sale of medical marijuana in the city.

The committee members said people with doctor's recommendations for marijuana ought to be able to reimburse pot dispensaries for the cost of cultivating and distributing it, without making a profit.

The committees also considered limiting the number of pot dispensaries in the city to as low as 70, but referred that and other issues to the full City Council. The City Attorney had wanted the ban to shut down hundreds of marijuana dispensaries.

The proposed ordinance, as amended by the committee, would allow monetary ``transactions'' among members of collectives, so that one or more members could be paid to cultivate medical marijuana for their fellow members.

However, those transactions would not be for profit but rather would constitute ``reasonable compensation or reimbursement for actual expenses.''

The City Attorney's Office contends the amendment might result in allowing over-the-counter sales of medical marijuana, which is banned by state law.

The committees began to debate the proposed new ordinance as the number of those outlets has exploded in the city. As many as 1,000 operate in L.A. – more than in any city in the nation.

Those affected by the possible change in city business, reacted to the news.

“It’s easy enough to get a prescription for medical marijuana," said a 28-year-old man, who was not identified, as he sat outside a small house in Silverlake.

The man found a doctor to give him a medical recommendation (it would violate federal law for a physician to call it a prescription) in one of L.A.'s many magazines devoted to pot. He says the doctors made it easy.

“They just have a whole list of disorders that you can say," the man said. "You can say ‘Oh, I can’t sleep. I have insomnia.’ OK. Done. It’s like a three-minute process. They give ‘em out left and right."

The man, who described himself as an author and artist with curly blond hair and an easy smile, doesn’t want to be identified because of the stigma associated with smoking pot. Neither do his two roommates sitting nearby.

When asked what his prescription was for, the man said that it was for insomnia. When asked if he really has trouble sleeping, he said "Sometimes," to laughter from his roommates. His roommate asked, "Do you need the drug? Are you addicted?" the man jokingly responded, "The hard-hitting journalist here. It's like 60 minutes."

His roommate is 22. She mentors kids at a public school. Why bother getting a doctor’s recommendation, she asks, when she can get her pot from John? She says she’s been inside a few of L.A.'s medical marijuana dispensaries – many identified with signs that depict a green pot leaf or green cross.

“I mean some places are just like glorified old school drug dealers with a shop," the woman said. She recalls visiting one in the San Fernando Valley. “I walked in and they didn’t even ask me for a prescription. And they like sold me stuff. So I mean, obviously, it’s like the pot rush. Everybody’s sort of running in and trying to make money off of this.”

No one knows for sure how many dispensaries operate in L.A. More than 900 have filed papers telling the city they’re open or about to open. Operators filed most of these after the Obama administration announced an end to federal raids on pot stores in February.

We have more pot shops than Starbucks, more pot shops than public schools, perhaps more pot shops than gas stations," said David Berger, of the L.A. City Attorney's Office. Berger helped draft a proposed law to regulate dispensaries. It would ban them from operating near schools, churches, and parks, limit how much inventory they stock, and subject them to city inspections. The heart of the law would prohibit people from exchanging money for pot if they don’t participate in a medical marijuana collective.

But Dan Halem says it’s tricky to define ‘participation.’ He runs a marijuana delivery service based in Hollywood that serves people whose maladies range from cancer to anxiety. “Our patients are everybody and anybody, from the critically ill to doctors, attorneys, the person who is in the cubicle next to yours, said Halem.

Halem, who takes marijuana to deal with a hormone condition, says some patients simply pay him money for pot. “Some people might choose to participate in a collective by financially compensating the collective. They don’t necessarily have time to volunteer to tend to the plants.”

Berger of the City Attorney’s Office concedes that state law only vaguely spells out what participation in a collective means. “That, because we have this loosely described state law, will have to be decided by a case going all the way up to the Supreme Court.”

Still, he and other city officials hope to shut down most of L.A.’s dispensaries using the proposed regulations. Those still need City Council approval and the mayor’s signature. Halem’s delivery service, that carries marijuana in smokeable and ingestible form, may become one target.

Halem opened a plastic bag and described one of his products, saying “They’re chocolate chip cookies. They’re double-dosed, so we’ll generally tell patients to start with a little bit, see what that does for them."

Halem agrees that the city needs to better regulate pot dispensaries. He also warns that if that regulation becomes too harsh, Los Angeles will make it more difficult for legitimate medical marijuana patients to get the relief they seek.

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