A ban on storefront pot dispensaries here won’t go into effect Thursday after advocates for medical marijuana successfully petitioned to block it, the latest skirmish in the battle over how local governments around the nation should regulate pot businesses.
After years of failed attempts to control the number of pot shops and their operations here, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously passed an ordinance in late July that made storefront dispensaries illegal by modifying language in the city’s municipal code.
Last week, medical-marijuana advocates submitted about 50,000 signatures to overturn the ban, nearly twice the number needed, according to the Los Angeles City Clerk’s office. Once the city clerk verifies the signatures, the council will have to decide whether to repeal the ordinance or place the issue on the ballot next year.
This city’s unsuccessful efforts to regulate marijuana businesses have taken center stage in a statewide and national debate. Even as the federal government steps up efforts to crack down on dispensary sales of the drug, illegal under U.S. law, 17 states and the District of Columbia now allow marijuana use for medicinal purposes, according to Americans for Safe Access, an advocacy group.
An ASA spokesman said California was the first state to popularize brick-and-mortar pot shops, typically denoted with a leaf or cross symbol, and the nation’s largest state still counts the most pot shops.
A 1996 voter-approved initiative allows people with a doctor’s recommendation to grow and use marijuana for medical reasons in California. According to an attorney for the city of Los Angeles, there is no mention of dispensaries in that law.
“The state voter initiative envisioned a kibbutz model,” said Deputy City Attorney Bill Carter. “It’s morphed into a Starbucks model.”
Complicating the issue for California cities is a tangle of competing lawsuits. Last year, the California Court of Appeals ruled that the city of Long Beach, just south of Los Angeles, couldn’t use a lottery system to limit the number of pot shops, because controlling the distribution of medical marijuana violates federal law. The state Supreme Court recently dismissed the case.
The state Supreme Court is expected to take up other cases addressing the issue of whether municipalities can ban pot shops, but not for several months.
Although many California municipalities ban pot sales, about 50 jurisdictions allow sales, while regulating things like the number of dispensaries, their locations and hours of operation, according to Don Duncan, California director of ASA.
In 2007, when fewer than 200 dispensaries were operating in Los Angeles, city officials passed a moratorium to block new ones from opening. But hundreds more opened anyway, exploiting an exemption for dispensaries that could show they faced “hardship.”
There are currently about 1,000 dispensaries in the city, according to Councilman Paul Koretz, who represents parts of the city’s west side.
On the same day the City Council passed the ban, Mr. Koretz proposed that city attorneys prepare a separate ordinance allowing dispensaries that were open before 2008 to remain in business. Mr. Koretz said he hoped the new ordinance, once it proceeds through a clearance process, would be approved by the City Council before the ban comes up for a citywide vote.
For now, the proliferation continues. In the east side neighborhood of Eagle Rock, about 15 dispensaries have sprouted up recently, attracting customers from the nearby communities of Pasadena and Glendale, where dispensaries are banned.
Michael Larsen, president of the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council, said he isn’t opposed to medicinal marijuana but said the shops are a “nuisance” in the community. Loitering, littering and reselling are serious problems around the dispensaries, Mr. Larsen said.
“It’s easier to open a pot shop than a yogurt shop in Eagle Rock,” Mr. Larsen said. “They just do it and start raking in the cash.”
Annie Lam, a manager at Hyperion Healing in the nearby neighborhood of Silver Lake, said a citywide ban would be “harsh” for many of her shop’s clients who use marijuana to curtail side effects from AIDS, cancer drugs and other conditions. State law allows people with a prescription to grow their own cannabis, she said, but for many that isn’t a viable option.
“They’re frustrated,” she said. “Everyone still needs their medication.”
A version of this article appeared September 6, 2012, on page A3 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: L.A. Pot Ban Is Blocked.