Court ruling on L.A. pot ban could prompt stronger regulation

L.A.'s temporary ban on pot dispensaries is invalid, said a judge Monday. That could force the city council to a pass more permanent ordinance to regulate the boom in medical marijuana dispensaries.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Young marijuana plants are shown Sept. 15, in Seattle.
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A court ruling Monday that L.A.'s ban on new medical marijuana dispensaries is invalid could have a ripple effect on other California cities. Sacramento and Santa Cruz officials say they may rethink the moratoriums they're considering on dispensaries in their own cities.

L.A. did not follow state law when it extended its initial 2007 moratorium, said Superior Court Judge James C. Chalfant Monday, issuing preliminary injunction against enforcement of the ban. "The city cannot rely on an expired ordinance," he said, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The L.A. City Council extended the moratorium twice since 2007, most recently this summer, while it tried to write a permanent ordinance to regulate the dispensaries in place of the moratorium, a temporary ban. The recent ruling may now pressure the council to finally pass an ordinance.

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The ruling was issued in a case against the ban brought by the Green Oasis dispensary, but the city has been sued by several dispensaries in recent months. The number of medical marijuana dispensaries has boomed from 183 in 2007 to 800 this year, and police had moved to shut down many of them, citing complaints from neighbors over inadequate oversight.

"We just think they attract the wrong kind of people," says Nadia Egbert, who lives blocks away from the New Liberty Bell Temple, near Dodger Stadium in downtown L.A. The smell of marijuana wafts out the front door of the dispensary as patients walk in and out to purchase different strains of cannabis. Many residents also worry that many medical pot consumers are not genuine patients.

But medical marijuana users were relieved. "We're tired of being pushed around and are delighted that the court has ruled in our favor," countered Judd Delantey, an insurance adjuster who says he uses marijuana to treat his lymphoma, standing outside Sunset Holistic on Hollywood Boulevard.

National marijuana advocacy organizations say the moment should be used to shine the light on the need for advocates and opponents to reach clear-headed compromise.

""Moratoriums are not the answer; sensible regulation is," says Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "Rather than driving these operations underground, law enforcement and local politicians would be better served working with the patient community to enact regulatory guidelines that seek to promote – rather than impede – public safety and regulated patient access to physician-authorized medicinal cannabis."

In its argument against the lawsuit, the city had held that the moratorium should not be subject to the procedures imposed by state law on zoning ordinances, because it was not issue of zoning but rather public safety.

The judge rejected the safety argument.

Marijuana arrests in 2008 rose to their highest level in California since the state decriminalized possession of less than an ounce of marijuana in 1976, according to the latest data from the California Dept. of Justice Bureau of Criminal Statistics.

The state reported 17,126 felony marijuana arrests in 2008, up from 16,124 in 2007, while misdemeanor possession arrests rose to 61,366 from 57,995.

The California chapter of NORML estimates that the state currently spends over $200 million per year to arrest, prosecute and imprison marijuana offenders.

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