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.

Damian Dovarganes/AP/File
Pedestrians walk past a medical marijuana dispensary in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles on July 24. The same day, the Los Angeles City Council voted to ban marijuana shops outright until it has clearer guidance from the state's highest court, after being unable to rein in the hundreds of medical marijuana dispensaries that have cropped up.

Activists here have qualified a measure for the March ballot that would repeal a Los Angeles City Council ban on medical-marijuana outlets. With medical-marijuana laws in 17 states – and three more states considering legalization for recreational use – Los Angeles highlights the difficulties of regulating and enforcing marijuana laws among often competing federal, state, and local policies.

California was the first state to approve medical marijuana in 1996. But when different locales tried to implement the distribution, there was local resistance – driven by churches, schools, parent groups, and police. These groups cited statistics showing crime going up in areas that had dispensaries. Litigation followed, and the result has been a confusing legal and regulatory tangle, with state law backing medical marijuana, federal law prohibiting it, and cities left to take sides.

With its ban, which took effect Sept. 6, Los Angeles has chosen the federal government's side, saying federal prohibitions against marijuana hold sway. Medical-marijuana advocates hope the ballot measure will bring some clarity to the situation.

“Many local officials don’t want to come right out and say, ‘We don’t like this,’ so instead they point to legal impediments which may or may not really be there,” says Allen Hopper, director of criminal justice and drug policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of California.

In the meantime, residents are caught in the middle.

“Unless this goes through, I’ll have to go to another city to get what I need to alleviate my chronic back pain,” says teacher Wendy Cutter, standing outside the Med’s Merchant marijuana dispensary in Sherman Oaks, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles.

“There’s so much back and forth on this issue, I’ve had it. Why can’t City Council understand how much medical marijuana helps people?”

A mile up the street is Ted Nugent, a single father of two who coaches soccer. Standing outside the Sherman Oaks Medical Marijuana Relief Clinic, he offers a different opinion.

“I really just don’t want my kids growing up thinking that using marijuana is a normal, accepted activity,” he says.

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

“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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