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Jars full of medical marijuana are seen at Sunset Junction medical marijuana dispensary on May 11, 2010 in Los Angeles, California.
The ban on Los Angeles medical marijuana dispensaries is up in the air. The City Council unanimously voted to shut down all city pot shops last month, but last week activists delivered more than 50,000 signatures to put a referendum on the ballot. Once the signatures are verified the council can either repeal the ban or put the issue to voters this November.
Over 1,000 letters went out to the city's dispensaries informing them of an impending ban. City officials say they don't know the exact number of dispensaries, but a new UCLA study may provide more certainty.
Professor Bridget Freisthler, who teaches social welfare at UCLA, led a group of researchers in verifying all of the registered marijuana dispensaries. They cross-referenced the city registry and visited every address on the list to see if a pot shop existed at the location. What they found was that many of the business owners who had entered into the lottery for a license, never actually ended up opening a dispensary. In some cases, businesses had already shut down.
The final number they came up with was 472 – less than half of the 1,000 addresses the city had claimed were operating as pot dispensaries.
"[The city is] going off of their own city finance list. If you remember a few years ago, dispensaries had to register to be put on the list for a possible lottery they were going to have. When you look at this list in detail, you would find the same address listed with three different dispensary names. People would go and they would register multiple names, hoping to increase their chances of getting one of those permits for their dispensary," Freisthler explained.
The research was funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse to collect information about medical marijuana dispensaries. "There are a lot of claims that are made about dispensaries, and part of what this study is about finding out if those claims are actually true," Freisthler continued. "We want to know: What does your typical dispensary look like? Is it really related to increased [rates] of marijuana use, increase rate of crimes, those types of things."
According to Freisthler, there's an interesting coincidence between dispensaries and bars: L.A. city has roughly the same numbers of both. She added that before, as a researcher on alcohol outlet density in relation to crime, she's curious if dispensaries yield the same results.
"When you increase the number of bars in an area, you're going to start to see increases in problems," she said. "We're trying to build the same sort of evidence for the medical marijuana dispensaries, and so that's where my research is going to be going over the next four years."
Previous research Freisthler led on the correlation of medical marijuana dispensary number and crime rate showed no relationship.
"If you look within 100 feet of the medical marijuana dispensaries, the bars, the liquor stores, the restaurants, the dispensaries, by far, have the lowest number of crimes within 100 feet," she continued.
Freisthler said she's okay if people on both sides of the issue use her study to discuss the legitimacy of the ban.
"I think my job as a researcher is to provide hard evidence," she said. "Without having this research, we don't have a sense of what's out there. All I'm saying is, 'Let's have a debate about what's actually there, versus what we think might be there.'"
Bridget Freisthler, Professor of Social Welfare at UCLA