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Marijuana plants grow at Perennial Holistic Wellness Center medical marijuana dispensary, which opened in 2006, on July 25, 2012 in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles City Council has unanimously voted to ban storefront medical marijuana dispensaries and to order them to close or face legal action.
Before the Los Angeles City Council's unanimous vote last month in favor of the ordinance to ban medical marijuana dispensaries, Police Chief Charlie Beck assured council members that shutting down the nearly 1,000 pot shops in the city would be a smooth operation.
Beck told the Coucil that it was his belief that "the vast majority of these establishments will willingly comply.”
Compliance seemed a long way off Friday.
The Patient Care Alliance, which represents 300 pot shops, is suing the city to stop the ban that's due to take effect on Sept. 6. The suit argues that California laws that allow access to medical marijuana preempt any city prohibition on pot shops.
The suit also takes issue with a provision in the city's new ordinance governing medical marijuana that allows groups of up to three patients to grow and share marijuana. When Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa signed the ordinance, he said the provision was the best option to preserve access for medical use and to protect public safety.
But Alliance attorney Marc O’Hara told a news conference outside a downtown courthouse that allowing only small groups of people to grow pot together is impractical and violates California’s Compassionate Use Act.
“There may be a misconception among people, maybe from the ‘60s, that you throw marijuana seeds in the backyard and then there’s all the marijuana," said O'Hata. "I think there’s a big difference between medical cannabis and backyard homegrown weed."
The suit also argues that a ban on medical marijuana dispensaries violates patients’ constitutional right to free association.
“Our contention is that the city is unable to legally deprive citizens of the right to assemble and associate together in connection with their diseases," said O'Hara.
But Loyola Law School professor Aaron Caplan said that argument may be a hard sell.
“The First Amendment recognizes a right to associate with other people in order to express ideas," said Caplan. "It doesn’t cover associating with other people in order to simply do things.”
O’Hara said he doesn’t expect to be able to stop implementation of L.A.'s pot shop ban, which takes effect in two weeks.
The lawsuit asks for a temporary restraining order, but that would require proving that the ban would cause immediate, serious and irreparable injury. That could be a difficult argument, given that the city intends to initially seek voluntary compliance from shop owners.
A spokesman for L.A. City Attorney Carmen Trutanich declined to comment on the suit because the office had not received a copy. Mayor Villaraigosa’s office also declined to comment.
But L.A. City Councilman José Huizar issued a statement expressing confidence that the city's new ordinance would survive the Patient Care Alliance's legal challenge. Echoing Villaraigosa's contention last month, Huizar said L.A. does not have a ban on medical marijuana dispensaries since the ordinance "allows for three qualified patients or their caregivers to grow on their own."
The City Council passed the ban on medical marijuana dispensaries amid complaints that many of the pot shops are a neighborhood nuisance and attract crime. Police said some of the shops sold to minors or people without doctor’s prescriptions.
Medical marijuana activists open another attack on L.A.'s pot shop law next week, when they start collecting signatures for a ballot measure to repeal it entirely.