warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

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.



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.