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Why Is Medical Marijuana Regulation In Los Angeles So Confusing?

Amanda Kantor |
February 26, 2013 | 10:34 a.m. PST


What is the state of marijuana in Los Angeles' local law? (Wikimedia Commons)
What is the state of marijuana in Los Angeles' local law? (Wikimedia Commons)
The reason the Mayor has one of the most grueling jobs in politics is because he is physically surrounded by his constituency, engulfed by the clamorings and concerns of the city. It is an entirely different experience working in Sacramento, or Washington D.C., where representatives are comparatively removed from the majority of people they represent. All local politicians have the job of bringing the issues imbedded in society out in the open, and exposing them for their statewide or national significance.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, for example, has traveled to Washington D.C. several times already this year. He’s famously allergic to his desk in L.A., but aside from promoting his own national presence, he’s been traveling to advocate for the permanent residency and citizenship of undocumented immigrants. He represents a city in which one in ten people are undocumented, and therefore his perspective is essential to the national table.

In addition to influence, L.A. politicians have direct legislative authority over the laws that are debated on a state and national level. Marijuana is debated and controlled separately by every level of government, making many people in California extremely confused. I’d like to clear some things up for you.

While the 10th Amendment prevents the federal government from being able to mandate states to actively participate in enforcing federal law, the Supremacy Clause dictates that federal law preempts state law. The Supreme Court has treated the federal ban and state medical marijuana exemptions as distinct criminal areas: “Although state and federal marijuana laws may be ‘logically inconsistent,’ conduct for purposes of the law within one sphere does nothing to alter the legality of that same conduct in the other sphere.” So, if you own a dispensary in California, you risk prosecution by the federal government, but not the state.

The likelihood of this happening has increased since the Obama administration decided to crack down on enforcement, having lost faith in the ability of state and local officials to control a booming commercial industry. “The federal government is not trying to eliminate medical marijuana altogether,” said Time Magazine’s Michael Sherer, “but it has decided that it cannot stand for the commercialization or large scale production of marijuana—under the stated purpose of helping the sick—despite state law.”

In case you are confused by some of last December’s headlines, such as: “Marijuana Not High Obama Priority” and “Obama Lets the States Decide on Marijuana,” keep in mind that Obama’s personal comments to not dictate the behavior of the Executive Branch, nor do they mean he is willing to be a leader in marijuana reform.

But back to local policy—what consequences might you face if your dispensary is in L.A.?

In July 2012, the L.A. City Council voted unanimously to ban pot shops, ordering the 762 pot shops in L.A. to close or face legal action by the city. Pot shops responded with an enthusiastic proliferation of businesses. Two months after the “ban,” the number of pot shops in L.A. increased to over 1,000. While I did not know our Councilmen had legislative power when it came to marijuana, I can’t say that they have influence. Or perhaps they are simply no match for medical marijuana activists. In September of last year, city officials admitted that they would not enforce their July decision, and would instead consider a 50,000-signature petition to place marijuana on the local ballot this May.

On February 5, the L.A. City Council confirmed that three different marijuana dispensary measures would appear on the May 21 ballot—the same ballot that will elect our next Mayor. Last Week, Marc Brown from ABC7 asked the candidates for L.A. Mayor about their stance on local marijuana laws.

Kevin James, who was the chairman of AIDS project Los Angeles, echoed the federal government’s concerns: “I’ve seen how medical marijuana used properly helps AIDS and cancer patients, but transformed to recreational pot shops isn’t good.” James was referring to the problem that brought the issue of marijuana to the City Council in the first place: residents have been complaining about the number and location of dispensaries and the related problems they cause in their communities. As Wendy Greuel remarked, “There has been an unfortunate proliferation [of dispensaries] near schools and parks. We need to limit the number and provide safe access [to medical marijuana] with no harm to our communities.”

Candidate Emanuel Pleitez, however, who regularly reminds us that he grew up on the “streets” of L.A., was much more urgent: “We must provide guidance for our young people. While we should have sympathy for patients, we have to cut off the accessibility and attractiveness of the drug.” This urgency is perceptible in the last of the three measures, supported by Eric Garcetti. It will combine restrictions on proximity of dispensaries to schools and churches, with a tax increase to $60 on every $1,000 of pot sold. In addition, it will limit the number of dispensaries to 135. Don Duncan, president of Americans for Safe Access, said, “It represents the best chance to get a majority of voters. It represents a position that patients, providers and community members can all support.”

New marijuana laws alone won’t change the culture of Los Angeles, and revenue from taxing the drug won’t make a dent in our deficit; however, our City Council has a responsibility to listen to the concerns of its residents. Having said that, residents can easily reject all three measures to limit marijuana and send our politicians back to the drawing board.

To make Californians more confused, the California state Supreme Court is currently working on a decision that will determine whether local governments have the authority to preempt state law. If one of the three local measures passes, it could be in conflict with the state’s Compassionate Use Act.

All of these checks and balances could render the Mayor far less influential than I’ve professed, but it doesn’t make the job any less grueling. Our next mayor can look forward to taking both praise and blame for L.A.’s new marijuana policy come May, in addition to dodging the “logically inconsistent” laws coming out of Sacramento and Washington D.C.


Reach Contributor Amanda Kantor here; follow her here.


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Anonymous (not verified) on March 13, 2013 5:52 PM

ya let those 135 control the market, like the cartels do it in mexico.... idiots do they know how much business those 135 pot shops would have? when there is 1000 shops and they all do 1000$-2000$ a day and some way more, how much u think those 135 would do on their own? 50000$-100000$ a day? there is politics and there is business we must look at both before we do anything..without free market there will be monopolies...

Anonymous (not verified) on February 26, 2013 8:18 PM

I appreciate your points. It's always refreshing when someone tries to shed light on the logically inconsistent "sphere" of politics. Unfortunately, one of our governments greatest strengths', diversity and bipartisanship, is also one of its greatest weaknesses. Many issues will never be truly resolved due to the swinging pendulum of a bipartisan government swinging back and forth.

In regards to the marijuana debate. I don't think their is one clear answer. I believe both sides have great points. We could argue the location of the dispensaries, the affect those have on local neighborhoods, and the people who will abuse its recreational use; conversely, we could argue the health benefits, the increased state revenue, and how it's not as bad as alcohol. I believe the toughest cookie for government to swallow is the message legalizing it would send. "We have our hands tied in debt, so let's legalize a drug to help save us." As I said earlier, I don't stand on either side, but can you imagine that this is a harsh truth it comes down to? It just seems to have a too much of a negative connotation to it.

However, alcohol does have its horrible reputation too. The debate on which is truly worse is never ending. For the affects of both don't have the same consequences on/for everyone. Conversely, we did attempt to control alcohol use back in the 1930's. We all know how well that went, but we wouldn't have if it wasn't for giving it a chance in legislature, to see how society would truly react. So maybe it's time for Marijuana's chance to be integrated into society. We won't truly know the outcome unless try. Nothing is forever; should the repercussions be horrendous, just like the prohibition, polices can be reversed or new policies can be enacted.

So let's hope D.C., Sacramento, Villaraigosa, or whoever is next can effectively take on this meticulous process of legalizing marijuana. I won't be holding my breath though. Unfortunately, it could be a long time coming, if ever, before all the branches move forward in one direction. Until then, I guess we will just have to keep watching the pendulum continue to swing back and forth, back and forth...

Anonymous (not verified) on February 27, 2013 2:56 AM

Agreed-we don't know if a policy will work until we give it a chance, and states are the best place to experiment. This was Sandra Day O'Connor's opinion when medical marijuana hit the supreme court: "This overreaching stifles an express choice by some States, concerned for the lives and liberties of their people, to regulate medical marijuana differently. If I were a California citizen, I would not have voted for the medical marijuana ballot initiative; if I were a California legislator I would not have supported the Compassionate Use Act. But whatever the wisdom of California’s experiment with medical marijuana, the federalism principles that have driven our Commerce Clause cases require that room for experiment be protected in this case."

Anonymous (not verified) on February 26, 2013 7:29 PM

So funny how it just doesn't matter what the courts and legislators say. Since the Supreme Court shut down NORML in 2005, shops increased from 300 to 5,000 nationwide.

KP (not verified) on February 26, 2013 7:06 PM

Interesting case on how a simple problem can prove to be one of the most difficult to solve because of the size of an organization (GOTUS, in the this case) and its stakeholders.

Anonymous (not verified) on February 26, 2013 12:48 PM

the elected politicians are a joke and when this country collapses i dont want to be in their shoes.

Anonymous (not verified) on February 26, 2013 12:46 PM

the politicians in america have destroyed this country pot is a harmless plant, alcohol is the worst drug on earth and yet that legal just shows you what a bunch of idiots we have elected.

Anonymous (not verified) on February 26, 2013 12:01 PM

The Supreme Court will allow local governments to regulate MMJ right before the election. The next hurdle will be the reform of taxes on MMJ. How can a business survive with 16% in local, State, and corporate taxes-not including Federal. How can the State enforce taxes on gross when the business is nonprofit and where every other medical drug dispensary is not taxed the same? Federal taxing does not allow MMB to take deductions based on
1980s drug dealer law. Legalization for MMJ s now and MMJ tax reform is tomorrow.

Anonymous (not verified) on February 26, 2013 7:23 PM

Good point, government is trying to stifle the businesses with taxes. Taxing marijuana isn't even the best way to raise revenue. At this point, the philosophical arguments are more compelling than the economic.