Pubdate: Wed, 5 May 2010
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Page: AA1, continued on page AA6
Copyright: 2010 Los Angeles Times
Author: John Hoeffel
Referenced: The list of dispensaries notified
Referenced: An example letter
Bookmark: (Cannabis - California)
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal - U.S.)


L.A. Sends Letters to 439 Dispensaries Giving Operators Until June 7 
to Shut Down

Los Angeles city prosecutors began notifying 439 medical marijuana 
dispensaries Tuesday that they must shut down by June 7, when the 
city's ordinance to regulate the stores takes effect. It's the first 
step in what could be a lengthy and expensive legal battle to regain 
control over pot sales.

The letters, which were sent to both dispensary operators and 
property owners, warn that violations of the city's laws are a 
misdemeanor and could lead to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. 
Collectives that stay open after the deadline could also face civil 
penalties of $2,500 a day.

"We're hopeful that the fact that we've given them more than 30 days 
to comply that a significant number of them will cease operating," 
said Asha Greenberg, the assistant city attorney who has handled most 
of the efforts to close dispensaries.

Los Angeles became the epicenter of the state's dispensary boom last 
year, following the Obama administration's announcement that it would 
not prosecute medical marijuana stores that adhered to state law. 
Although the city had a moratorium on new dispensaries, it failed to 
enforce the ban and hundreds opened with no oversight, triggering 
complaints from neighborhood activists.

The letters were welcomed by city officials and activists as a sign 
that the contentious issue, which was first considered by the City 
Council five years ago, is nearing a resolution.

"We've arrived. It's like being on a journey and saying, 'Are we 
there yet? Are we there yet?' " said Councilman Ed Reyes, who oversaw 
the laborious process that led to an ordinance after two years of 
debate. "It feels good that we have finally reached this threshold."

Michael Larsen, the incoming president of the Eagle Rock Neighborhood 
Council, was the most tenacious spokesman for residents worried about 
unregulated dispensaries. "There's actually something happening based 
on an ordinance that we worked very hard to get into place. On that 
level, I am relieved," he said. "The truth about the actual 
enforcement, that will just be a big question mark."

Under the new ordinance, only dispensaries that registered with the 
city after the council adopted the moratorium in 2007 will be allowed 
to operate. City officials estimate that more than 130 of the 
original 186 registered dispensaries are still in business.

The Los Angeles Police Department cased the city to try to find every 
dispensary. Estimates from city officials and medical marijuana 
activists had ranged as high as 1,000. But Capt. Kevin McCarthy, who 
heads the LAPD's Gangs and Narcotics Division, said, "We came up with 
less than 600, which is good."

Greenberg said the city attorney's office will send out more letters 
if residents point out additional dispensaries. "We're making our 
best efforts, and we're using information from really our eyes and 
ears out there, which is the community," she said.

The city's enforcement efforts, however, could be stymied by court cases.

Two related lawsuits filed by dispensaries challenge the City 
Council's decision to close stores that did not register under the 
moratorium, which a local judge ruled was illegally extended. "We're 
looking for the court to just acknowledge that our clients are 
unlawfully discriminated against," said David Welch, a lawyer who 
represents 36 dispensaries in the lawsuit.

Eric Shevin, another lawyer with experience in marijuana issues, is 
preparing to sue on behalf of patients. "We are putting together a 
very comprehensive lawsuit to strike down L.A.'s ordinance," he said, 
arguing that the law imposes unreasonable restrictions on patient 
access to medicine. "There is really nothing that allows medical 
marijuana patients to be treated differently than, say, Vicodin patients."

Los Angeles has tried twice to persuade dispensaries to shut down, 
with mixed results. City prosecutors sent letters last year ordering 
53 stores to close after the City Council denied their applications 
to operate despite the ban, and 28 did so. Earlier this year, letters 
were sent to the landlords of 21 dispensaries targeted by LAPD 
undercover operations, and six stores closed.

McCarthy said he hopes most dispensaries will close voluntarily. He 
believes many operators are conscientious, but notes that others are 
not. "I don't know what percentage of them are knuckleheads, and 
because the money is pretty good, we're not going to get 100%" 
compliance, he said.

Noting that medical marijuana is not the narcotics division's highest 
priority, he said it could take some time to determine which 
dispensaries remained open beyond the deadline. He said his officers 
would focus on the biggest nuisances: "Obviously, the ones that the 
community is screaming about are the ones we are going to go to first." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake