Why a Ban on Medical Marijuana Dispensaries in Los Angeles is a Bad Idea

By James Shaw on January 15th 2012

The Daily News editorial Jan. 15 called for a ban on medical marijuana dispensaries in the City of Los Angeles, based on arguments put forth by the City Attorney’s office. The Union of Medical Marijuana Patients warned the City Council two years ago that the City Attorney had provided fatally-flawed advice on the then-new ordinance and, indeed, Superior Court Judge Anthony Mohr ordered it to be amended several times before he ruled in its favor last October. Now, we’re asking the Council to be very skeptical about the advice that there is no problem with banning dispensaries.

Let’s start with the fact that Daily News says that according to the recent Pack v. Long Beach decision by the 2nd District Court of Appeals, “while a city can ban marijuana outlets, it can’t regulate them.” What Pack actually says it that cities can’t use permits or licenses to regulate marijuana collectives, because that would authorize them in direct opposition to federal law, but cities can use zoning and other restrictions and the normal police powers they have for abating public nuisances. The Union has proposed a system of regulating at arm’s length through independent third-party verification that would accomplish the purposes of permitting without permitting and also avoid further litigation over patient privacy and Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination.

Complaints about dispensaries mostly are about public nuisances like loitering and excessive traffic. You would get the impression from the Daily News that they are magnets for violent crime, but in fact, L.A. police chief Charlie Beck did a study that showed medical cannabis dispensaries were a quarter as likely as banks to be robbed and caused no significant uptick in crime.

During the Public Safety Committee meeting last Friday (which did not allow public comment), a City Council member stated that he had heard there were more medical marijuana dispensaries than ice cream parlors. The more relevant comparison is with places selling liquor: there are 3,400 alcohol licenses in Los Angeles and they are frequent targets, and demonstrably causes of, crime, yet no one is talking about banning alcohol sales. The Daily News’ characterization of areas around medical cannabis dispensaries as “the Wild West” shows the editors haven’t actually visited any. Most are surprisingly low-key.

There are complaints about illegal secondary sales to minors near some dispensaries. The problem could be alleviated simply by enforcing the law, as is done with sales to minors near liquor stores. The Daily News apparently thinks that by banning dispensaries, either teens will suddenly voluntarily stop smoking weed altogether or it believes it would be an improvement if they bought it directly from drug dealers.

The tragic irony of a ban is that city officials promoting this haven’t thought about what the unintended consequences would be. The editorial notes that patients would still be allowed to grow their own, but what this would actually mean is that the estimated quarter million medical cannabis users in L.A. would need to bring their legally-allowed 1.5 million plants home. They might legally then form neighborhood patient associations, so instead of 350 dispensaries, the city would have thousands of smaller pot farms doing collective cultivating. Marijuana has a distinctive smell , neighbors would talk, and these homes would become targets for robbery.

But marijuana is actually very difficult to grow in the local climate. That would mean many patients would get frustrated and go back to the black market.  Which proponents of a ban are ready to accept responsibility for a dramatic increase in violent crime and neighborhood complaints?

The real reason the City Attorney wants to ban dispensaries is not because he believes there is a lot of crime around them, that the police can’t handle quality of life problems, or that Pack forbids the cities from being able to regulate. In the Public Safety meeting, the City Attorney’s office claimed that it had spent millions of dollars in 66 lawsuits that it now wants to dump, which it can only  do if it the city puts a ban in place.

Yes, dealing with legitimate legal challenges is very inconvenient and expensive for all sides, but this is a self-inflicted wound and the amount that will be spent on these lawsuits going forward is likely to be modest in comparison. Furthermore, despite the assertions by the City Attorney to the contrary, no final state court decision has been made about the legality of a ban on medical marijuana dispensaries, which means this action will be litigated.

Those who would be most hurt by a ban on medical cannabis dispensaries would, of course, be the legitimate patients. The editorial asserts that dispensaries are mainly selling marijuana to people who don’t need it, without offering any evidence to back that up (because there isn’t any, which never stops critics of medical marijuana to keep stating this). In fact, a U.C. Santa Cruz study showed that 80 percent of patients were using it instead of prescription drugs, which were either ineffective for their symptoms or which had very negative side effects. Before the City Council imposes a ban, it should spend time talking with patients who have benefited from using marijuana to alleviate everything from depression and multiple sclerosis to pain from cancer and AIDS.

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