On a warm, bright winter day in January, I spent a few hours driving around two neighborhoods in Los Angeles, looking at marijuana stores.
You know, marijuana stores. Where you (well, not necessarily you) can walk in and, if you can prove a doctor has recommended marijuana to you for relief of an ailment, walk out with a brown bag full of buds, pot brownies, or cannabis candy bars. Los Angeles has more than 500 of these stores. My companions on the drives were two citizen activists who didn’t like seeing so many marijuana shops and who regularly let the Los Angeles City Council know of their unhappiness.
Michael Larsen, a 43-year-old family man, is public safety director for the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council. He doesn’t like to discuss his day job in the press, saying it has drawn too many hostile medical marijuana supporters to his work-related websites in the past.
Eagle Rock, a neighborhood in northeast Los Angeles, is visibly aging but remains dignified and distinct, with commercial areas occupied mostly by low-slung, pale old buildings housing storefront doctor’s offices, service businesses such as beauty salons and tax preparers, and independent restaurants and boutiques rather than chain stores. As we cruise a mile or so up and down Eagle Rock, York, and Colorado boulevards, Larsen points out more than 10 pot dispensaries. “Eagle Rock is about being a small community with a small-town feel, and we want to retain that,” he says.
Responding to criticisms he’s received from medical marijuana activists, Larsen insists: “I’m not being uncompassionate. I may be a NIMBY, but I’m fine with that. Eagle Rock is struggling to maintain the character of the neighborhood, for my kids or other people and their kids.” Larsen tells me about the healthy-looking young men who sometimes congregate in parking lots or on streets near dispensaries, smoking pot or blasting music. He points out one such young man entering AEC, a dispensary on Colorado Boulevard, while we are in its parking lot. He tells me about a local woman in her 80s who can’t understand what kind of world she’s living in, where marijuana is sold on her corner.
Larsen also points out some grubby-looking auto repair shops along his neighborhood’s main strip and tells me how the locals managed to curb their profusion through the city’s planning process. He talks about the auto repair shops in much the same way he discusses the pot shops. He does not think either should be completely eliminated, but he believes they constitute a blight on the neighborhood when they are too conspicuous.
Larsen and I pass one marijuana dispensary, the Cornerstone Collective, that I visited the day before. If you didn’t know it was there, you wouldn’t know it was there. It has no pot leaf images, no neon signs announcing “Alternative” or “Herbal,” no commercial signage at all. The owner, Michael Backes, told me with amused pride that a while back, when a runaway car plowed straight through his wall, a local news crew identified the place as a “dentist office,” which is what it looks like from its waiting room. Backes is “doing it right,” Larsen tells me.
My drive through Studio City, in the southeast San Fernando Valley just over the mountains from Hollywood, is similar. Barbara Monahan Burke, a 64-year-old horticulturalist who serves as the neighborhood council’s co-chair for government affairs, doesn’t say anything about increases in crime associated with the marijuana dispensaries (a connection often asserted by public officials), but she does complain about occasional pot smoking in front of them, which can annoy commercial neighbors. “I personally believe in compassionate use of medical marijuana and voted for it,” she says.
Within a couple of miles on Ventura Boulevard, a dozen dispensaries seem to be open for business on this weekday afternoon. (Burke told me in mid-February that by then she was only sure that six of them were still open for business.) “It’s about preservation of communities,” she says. “We want this to be a place where families can live. It’s about, what do the people who live here want our branding to be as Studio City?” That branding, she thinks, should not be linked to green crosses and billboards for Medicann, a medical marijuana doctors’ consulting service, every couple of blocks on her neighborhood’s major commercial strip.
The Wild West of Weed
Newsweek dubbed Los Angeles “the wild West of weed” in October 2009, and that phrase often echoed through the city council’s chamber as it haggled over a long-awaited ordinance regulating the dispensaries. Both the Los Angeles Times and the L.A. Weekly regularly jabbed at the city council for fiddling while marijuana burned, supplied by storefront pot dispensaries that were widely (but inaccurately) said to total 1,000 or more.
On January 26, after years of dithering and months of debate, the city council finally passed an ordinance to regulate medical marijuana shops. In addition to dictating the details of lighting, record keeping, auditing, bank drops, hours of operation, and compensation for owners and employees, the ordinance requires a dramatic reduction in the number of dispensaries. The official limit is 70, but because of exemptions for some pre-existing dispensaries the final number could grow as high as 137. The ordinance allocates the surviving dispensaries among the city’s “planning districts” and requires that they be located more than 1,000 feet from each other and from “sensitive areas” such as parks, schools, churches, and libraries. It also requires patients who obtain marijuana from dispensaries to pick one outlet and stick with it.
As those rules suggest, city officials are not prepared to treat marijuana like any other medicine, despite a 1996 state ballot initiative that allows patients with doctor’s recommendations to use it for symptom relief. It’s hard to imagine the city council arbitrarily limiting the number of pharmacies, insisting that they not do business near competitors, creating buffer zones between parks and Duane Reade locations, or demanding that patients obtain their Lipitor from one and only one drugstore. Such restrictions reflect marijuana’s dual identity in California: It is simultaneously medicine and menace. At the same time, the regulations do serve to legitimize distribution of a drug that remains completely prohibited by federal law—a stamp of approval welcomed by many dispensary operators.
When I asked activists, businessmen, or politicians why L.A.’s medical marijuana market needed to be regulated, they almost invariably replied, “It was unregulated.” When I delved beyond that tautology, I found motives little different from those that drive land use planning generally. The activists who demanded that the city bring order to the “wild West” of medical marijuana were motivated not by antipathy to cannabis so much as mundane concerns about “blight,” neighborhood character, and spillover effects. While responding to these concerns, every member of the city council voiced support for medical access to marijuana in theory, and none openly sided with the federal law enforcement officials who view the trade as nothing more than drug dealing in disguise.
Los Angeles became the medical marijuana capital of America thanks to a combination of entrepreneurial energy and benign political neglect. What happened here is instructive for other jurisdictions that already or may soon let patients use the drug. In the last 14 years, the voters or legislators of 14 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for at least some medical purposes. Medical marijuana campaigns, via either legislation or ballot initiative, are active in 13 other states. National surveys indicate broad public support for such reforms. An ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted in January found that 81 percent of Americans think patients who can benefit from marijuana should be able to obtain it legally.