Height of freedom: Drugs across the counter

Setting an example: Harborside Health Centre, a nonprofit medical marijuana dispensary in Oakland, California, is looked upon as a model of how others could operate. NYT

There are more marijuana stores in Los Angeles than public schools. Signs emblazoned with cannabis plants or green crosses sit next to dry cleaners, gas stations and restaurants.

The dispensaries range from Hollywood-day-spa fabulous to shoddy-looking storefronts with hand-painted billboards. Cannabis advocates claim that more than 800 dispensaries have sprouted here since 2002; some law enforcement officials say it is closer to 1,000. Whatever the real number, everyone agrees it is too high. And so this, too, is taken for granted: Crackdowns on cannabis clubs will soon come in this city, which has more dispensaries than any other.

For the first time, law enforcement officials in Los Angeles have vowed to prosecute medical marijuana dispensaries that turn a profit, with police officials saying they expect to conduct raids. Their efforts are widely seen as a campaign to sway the city council into adopting strict regulations after two years of debate.

It appears to be working. Carmen A Trutanich, the newly elected city attorney, recently persuaded the council to put aside a proposed ordinance negotiated with medical marijuana supporters for one drafted by his office. The new proposal calls for dispensaries to have renewable permits, submit to criminal record checks, register the names of members with the police, and operate on a nonprofit basis. If enacted, it is likely to result in the closing of hundreds of marijuana dispensaries.

Trutanich argued that state law permits the exchange of marijuana between growers and patients on a nonprofit and noncash basis only. Marijuana advocates say that interpretation would regulate dispensaries out of existence and thwart the will of voters who approved medical cannabis in 1996.

Support for medical marijuana

Whatever happens here will be closely watched by law enforcement officials and marijuana advocates across the country who are threading their way through federal laws that still treat marijuana as an illegal drug and state laws that are increasingly allowing medicinal use. Thirteen states have laws supporting medical marijuana, and others are considering new legislation.

No state has gone further than California, often described by drug enforcement agents as a ‘source nation’ because of the vast quantities of marijuana grown here. And no city in the state has gone further than Los Angeles.

“Nearly 100 per cent of dispensaries in Los Angeles county and the city are operating illegally,” said Steve Cooley, the Los Angeles County district attorney, who is up for re-election next year. “The time is right to deal with this problem.”

So far, prosecutions of marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles have been limited to about a dozen in the last year, said Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for Cooley. But police department officials said they were expecting to be called on soon to raid collectives.

Don Duncan, a spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, a leader in the medical marijuana movement, said that over-the-counter cash purchases should be permitted but that dispensaries should be nonprofit organisations. He also said marijuana collectives needed more regulation and a ‘thinning of the herd’.

For marijuana advocates, Los Angeles represents a critical juncture — a symbol of the movement’s greatest success, but also of its vulnerability.

More than 3,00,000 doctors’ referrals for medical cannabis are on file, the bulk of them from Los Angeles, according to Americans for Safe Access. The movement has had a string of successes in the legislature and at the ballot box.

But there have also been setbacks. In June, a federal judge sentenced Charles C Lynch, a dispensary owner north of Santa Barbara, to one year in prison for selling marijuana to a 17-year-old boy whose father had testified that they sought out medical marijuana for his son’s chronic pain.

And in September, San Diego police officers and sheriff’s deputies, along with agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration, raided 14 marijuana dispensaries and arrested 31 people. In an interview, Bonnie Dumanis, the district attorney for San Diego County, said that state laws governing medical marijuana were unclear and that the city had not yet instituted new regulations.

Clubs are OK

Dumanis said that she approved of medical marijuana clubs where patients grow and use their own marijuana, but that none of the 60 or so dispensaries in the county operated that way.

“These guys are drug dealers,” she said of the 14 that were raided. “I said publicly, if anyone thinks we’re casting too big a net and we get a legitimate patient or a lawful collective, then show us your taxes, your business license, your incorporation papers, your filings with the department of corporations.

Marijuana supporters worry that San Diego may provide a glimpse of the near future for Los Angeles if raids become a reality. But many look to Harborside Health Centre in Oakland as a model for how dispensaries could work.

“Our No 1 task is to show that we are worthy of the public’s trust in asking to distribute medical cannabis in a safe and secure manner,” said Steve DeAngelo, the proprietor of Harborside, which has been in business for three years.

Harborside is one of four licensed dispensaries in Oakland run as a nonprofit organisation. It is the largest, with 74 employees and revenues of about $20 million. Last summer, the Oakland city council passed an ordinance to collect taxes from the sale of marijuana, a measure that DeAngelo supported.

DeAngelo designed Harborside to exude legitimacy, security and comfort. Visitors to the low-slung building are greeted by security guards who check the required physicians’ recommendations. Inside, the dispensary looks like a bank, except that the floor is covered with hemp carpeting and the eight tellers stand behind identical displays of marijuana and hashish.

There is a laboratory where technicians determine the potency of the marijuana and label it accordingly. There is even a bank vault where the day’s cash is stored along with reserves of premium cannabis. An armoured truck picks up deposits every evening.

City officials routinely audit the dispensary’s books. Surplus cash is rolled back into the centre to pay for free counselling sessions and yoga for patients.

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