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Can Los Angeles ban medical marijuana shops? Voters set to decide.

An initiative to override Los Angeles's ban on medical marijuana dispensaries has qualified for the ballot. Currently, federal, state, and city laws have created a confusing tangle.

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Part of the inherent lack of clarity in state medical-marijuana laws comes from federal law, which classifies THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act. The law states that marijuana "has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States" and "there is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision," says Robert MacCoun, a professor at the School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley

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“Clearly marijuana is accepted as a medical treatment by many physicians, but that's what the law says, so unless marijuana is rescheduled, state and federal officials will be at odds over this policy,” he adds.

Public opinion in the state shows strong support for medical marijuana.

A University of Southern California poll in May found that 80 percent of California voters support doctor-recommended use for severe illness.

Activists say fathers like Mr. Nugent don’t understand that if distributing marijuana is illegal, a more nefarious problem will plague his kids: drug dealers. On the other hand, done well and right, they say, dispensing marijuana keeps crime down and provides income for the city.

“Local governments need to recognize that they can make sure that patients are safe, bring jobs and tax revenue to their communities, and take business away from criminals by regulating the medical-marijuana industry rationally, instead of burying their heads in the sand,” says Morgan Fox, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, in an e-mail. “The people of Los Angeles want medical marijuana patients to have safe access to their medicine, and they don't want to see the medical-marijuana market returned to the hands of criminal gangs.”

He and other advocates hold that if Los Angeles had regulated the industry properly from the beginning, they would have been able to avoid the proliferation of dispensaries while still ensuring safe access.

“Instead they are in a panic simply because there are more access points than they would like and attempting to ban them all would punish Los Angelenos for the city government's mistakes,” says Mr. Fox.

But Professor MacCoun says some medical-marijuana outlets have contributed to their own troubles. They "are far too flagrant in their willingness to dispense the drug for seemingly trivial conditions, and that's undermining the credibility of the medical-marijuana system,” he says.

The Los Angeles City Council now has several options. It can repeal its current ordinance, call a special election on the matter, or place the measure on the March 5 ballot, when city voters will be choosing eight new city council members, a new mayor, city controller, and city attorney. Most feel it will be placed on the March ballot.


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