The Los Angeles City Council voted Tuesday to shut down all of the medical marijuana dispensaries in the city. That's no easy task. There are more than 800 of them — more than the number of Starbucks coffee shops in Los Angeles. But after years of struggling to regulate pot shops, city officials have decided to prohibit them altogether.
Jennifer Moran supports California's 1996 Compassionate Use Act, which allows people to use marijuana for medicinal purposes. However, the new mother says things have gotten out of hand in her East Hollywood neighborhood. She's flanked on both ends of her block by medical marijuana dispensaries.
"When I walk home from the grocery store, I have to walk past a marijuana clinic where people are standing outside smoking marijuana," she says. "People stand in front of my house smoking marijuana, and I'm right across the street from a K-2 school."
In some areas of Los Angeles, dozens of pot shops crowd single zip codes. They feature myriad varieties of marijuana stuffed into plastic baggies, rolled into joints and cooked into brownies. Some are mom-and-pop nonprofits. Others are multimillion-dollar businesses serving more than 1,000 people.
These patients easily obtain recommendations from a handful of doctors willing to write them for ailments ranging from cancer to back pain to stress. In testimony before the City Council, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck says he has no problem with medical marijuana.
"What we do have issue with is large, for-profit businesses that operate outside what we think is state law," he says, "and not only cause a nuisance to the community but cause a public danger because of a very toxic mixture of high-value narcotics and a lot of cash."
Since 2007, Los Angeles has attempted to regulate pot shops by limiting their number and placing restrictions on their operations. Pot shop owners have sued, arguing that state law allows them to create collectives that distribute marijuana.
Courts have issued conflicting rulings, with one saying federal law prohibits any use of marijuana. Indeed, federal authorities periodically raid pot shops in California.
Many on the City Council are conflicted over the issue. Councilman Paul Koretz says pot provides relief for his friends with AIDS.
"I'm not happy about the hundreds of illegal dispensaries that have been added, but I don't want to see us completely close access off to people that desperately need medical marijuana," he says.
Outside City Hall, Michael Oliveri sits in a wheelchair, inhaling pot through a vaporizer. He suffers from muscular dystrophy.
"I don't like the illegal shops. I even have friends that own some of them, and I tell them, 'You know, you're the problem. You're the reason why I have so many problems in L.A.,' " he says.
The 28-year-old says banning medical marijuana dispensaries will make it too hard for him to obtain a medicine that relieves his pain and improves his appetite.
"I'm pretty much fighting just to stay alive. It's the only medicine that allows me to eat, and not weigh 84 pounds and be 6-foot-1," he says. "It's not a very good combo. So I'm trying to put on that extra 100 pounds."
Under the new ordinance, Oliveri can grow pot with one or two other people. Or he can travel to nearby cities that allow medical marijuana dispensaries. Those pot shops may be deluged with customers as L.A. moves to shut down its own.
Medical marijuana activists in the city haven't given up yet. They say they may place a referendum before voters that would once again allow pot shops in L.A.