One year after federal law enforcement officials began cracking down on California’s medical marijuana industry with a series of high-profile arrests around the state, they finally moved into Los Angeles last month, giving 71 dispensaries until Tuesday to shut down.
At the same time, because of a well-organized push by a new coalition of medical marijuana supporters, the City Council last week repealed a ban on the dispensaries that it had passed only a couple of months earlier.
Despite years of trying fruitlessly to regulate medical marijuana, California again finds itself in a marijuana-laced chaos over a booming and divisive industry.
Nobody even knows how many medical marijuana dispensaries are in Los Angeles. Estimates range from 500 to more than 1,000. The only certainty, supporters and opponents agree, is that they far outnumber Starbucks.
“That’s the ongoing, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ circus of L.A.,” said Michael Larsen, president of the Neighborhood Council in Eagle Rock, a middle-class community that has 15 dispensaries within a one-and-a-half-mile radius of the main commercial area, many of them near houses. “People here are desperate, and there’s nothing they can do.”
Though the neighborhood’s dispensaries were among those ordered to close by Tuesday, many are still operating. As he looked at a young man who bounded out of the Together for Change dispensary on Thursday morning, Mr. Larsen said, “I’m going to go out on a limb, but that’s not a cancer patient.”
In the biggest push against medical marijuana since California legalized it in 1996, the federal authorities have shut at least 600 dispensaries statewide since last October. California’s four United States attorneys said the dispensaries violated not only federal law, which considers all possession and distribution of marijuana to be illegal, but state law, which requires operators to be nonprofit primary caregivers to their patients and to distribute marijuana strictly for medical purposes.
While announcing the actions against the 71 dispensaries, André Birotte Jr., the United States attorney for the Central District of California, indicated that it was only the beginning of his campaign in Los Angeles. Prosecutors filed asset forfeiture lawsuits against three dispensaries and sent letters warning of criminal charges to the operators and landlords of 68 others, a strategy that has closed nearly 97 percent of the targeted dispensaries elsewhere in the district, said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the United States attorney.
Vague state laws governing medical marijuana have allowed recreational users of the drug to take advantage of the dispensaries, say supporters of the Los Angeles ban and the federal crackdown. Here on the boardwalk of Venice Beach, pitchmen dressed all in marijuana green approach passers-by with offers of a $35, 10-minute evaluation for a medical marijuana recommendation for everything from cancer to appetite loss.
Nearly 180 cities across the state have banned dispensaries, and lawsuits challenging the bans have reached the State Supreme Court. In more liberal areas, some 50 municipalities have passed medical marijuana ordinances, but most have suspended the regulation of dispensaries because of the federal offensive, according to Americans for Safe Access, a group that promotes access to medical marijuana. San Francisco and Oakland, the fiercest defenders of medical marijuana, have continued to issue permits to new dispensaries.
In 2004, shortly after the state effectively allowed the opening of storefront dispensaries, there were only three or four in Los Angeles, experts said. The number soon swelled into the hundreds before the city imposed a moratorium. But dispensaries continued to proliferate by exploiting a loophole in the moratorium even as lawsuits restricted the city’s ability to pass an ordinance. Over the summer, the City Council voted to ban dispensaries.
Anticipating the ban, the medical marijuana industry “that historically had not worked together very well” began organizing a counterattack, said Dan Rush, an official with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which formed a coalition with Americans for Safe Access and the Greater Los Angeles Collective Alliance, a group of dispensary owners. The coalition raised $250,000, mostly from dispensaries, to gather the signatures necessary to place a referendum to overturn the ban on the ballot next March, said Don Duncan, California director for Americans for Safe Access.
Instead of allowing the referendum to proceed in March, when elections for mayor and City Council seats will also be held, the council on Tuesday voted to simply rescind the ban. José Huizar, one of only two council members to vote against the repeal, and the strongest backer of the ban, said the city was not in a position to fight an increasingly well-organized industry.
Mr. Huizar said California’s medical marijuana laws, considered the nation’s weakest, must be changed to better control the production and distribution of marijuana, as well as limit access to only real patients.
“Unless that happens, local cities are going to continue to play the cat-and-mouse game with the dispensaries,” he said, adding that the industry had fought attempts here to regulate it. “These are folks who are just out to protect their profits, and they do that by having as little regulation or oversight as possible by the City of Los Angeles.”
But coalition officials say they favor stricter regulations here.Rigo Valdez, director of organizing for the local union, which represents 500 dispensary workers in Los Angeles, said he would support an ordinance restricting the number of dispensaries to about 125 and keeping them away from schools and one another.
“We would be able to respect communities by staying away from sensitive-use areas while providing safe access for medical marijuana patients,” he said.
Such an ordinance would shut down many dispensaries catering to recreational users, said Yamileth Bolanos, president of the Greater Los Angeles Collective Alliance and owner of a dispensary, the PureLife Alternative Wellness Center. “I felt we needed a medical situation with respect, not with all kinds of music going, tattoos and piercings in the face,” she said. “We’re normal people. Normal patients can come and acquire medicine.”
But the hundreds of dispensaries that would be put out of business will fight the federal crackdown, as some are already doing.
In downtown Los Angeles, where most of the dispensaries were included in the order to close, workers were renovating the storefront of the Downtown Collective. Inside, house music was being played in a lobby decorated to conjure “Scarface,” a poster of which hung on a wall.
“We don’t worry about this,” the manager said of the federal offensive, declining to give his name. “It’s between the lawyers.”
David Welch, a lawyer who is representing 15 of the 71 dispensaries and who is involved in a lawsuit challenging a ban at the State Supreme Court, said the federal clampdown would fail.
“Medical marijuana dispensaries are very much like what they distribute: they’re weeds,” he said. “You cut them down, you leave, and then they sprout back up.”
A version of this article appeared in print on October 8, 2012, on page A16 of the New York edition with the headline: Marijuana Only for the Sick? A Farce, Some in Los Angeles Say.