LOS ANGELES—Earl Stein's display cases once brimmed with varieties of medical marijuana, but stray multicolored pipes and other pot-smoking paraphernalia were all that remained earlier this month.
I've emptied the store, pretty much, he said.
Mr. Stein's Organic Pharmacy is one of more than 400 medical-marijuana dispensaries the City Council aimed to shut down with an ordinance that took effect recently.
But he hasn't closed up shop completely. He has merely removed his marijuana inventory for now, and hopes discrimination lawsuits filed against the city by himself and other dispensary operators will force officials to let him resume the trade.
I believe the ordinance will be overturned because of its illegalities, said the 58-year-old Mr. Stein.
The ordinance was an attempt to rein in a medical-marijuana market that some city officials believed was raging out of control. The state passed a law in 2003 specifying how people with a doctor's recommendation could obtain medical marijuana from nonprofit dispensaries.
Pot outlets quickly sprouted up across California. In Los Angeles, dozens took advantage of lax city regulations to set up shop. Some residents began to complain that the dispensaries were attracting loiterers and creating a public nuisance.
City officials passed a moratorium in 2007 to block new dispensaries from opening. But hundreds of new ones opened anyway, exploiting a loophole in the regulations. Many aggressively marketed their wares with neon signs and billboards.
The new ordinance requires all dispensaries that opened after the 2007 moratorium to shut down, and carries the threat of jail time and fines for noncompliance. It permits pre-moratorium dispensaries to keep operating, but establishes new rules on location and hours that many are finding difficult to comply with.
About 90 medical-marijuana dispensary operators, including Mr. Stein, are seeking preliminary injunctions against the city in Los Angeles Superior Court, arguing that the new ordinance unfairly discriminates against shops that opened after 2007. Many operators of the affected dispensaries have also begun to improvise to stay in the business.
The 99 High Art Collective in Venice Beach cleaned out its medical-marijuana inventory recently and now operates as a gallery that hosts artists, book readings and yoga classes.
But while marijuana is no longer sold on the premises, the collective offers a menu of medicinal pot for delivery, carting strains like Dragon's Breath and Mr. Nice to patients' doors.
The collective and other proprietors that have launched delivery services argue that as long as their pot dispensaries have no physical address, they comply with the new ordinance.
Local law enforcement isn't buying it. Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley said state law protects the transportation of medical marijuana only by a primary caregiver or patient, and that delivery services don't qualify.
They're just dope dealers, he said. The City Council is considering a measure that would explicitly ban delivery services.
Many California cities placed strict limits on how many marijuana dispensaries could operate, including San Francisco, which has only a few dozen.
The Los Angeles ordinance allows the 186 dispensaries set up before 2007 to apply for permits to remain open. About 169 of them had done so by a Monday deadline.
But even proprietors of some of those dispensaries complained they were having a difficult time complying with parts of the new ordinance, such as prohibitions against operating near churches, schools or parks.
I told them, Light the hoops on fire and we will jump through them, said Yami Bolanos, 54, who has run PureLife Alternative Wellness Center since 2006. But it's impossible, she said, tears filling her eyes.
Ms. Bolanos's dispensary was 139 feet from a school. She signed a lease and put a deposit on a new location. But the city told her a softball field would be built nearby in five years and she would have to find another spot. She has about a month to do so if she wants to keep operating.
Some patients are also complaining about the new ordinance. Michael Oliveri uses medical-marijuana to alleviate symptoms of muscular dystrophy.
He said prices at dispensaries have skyrocketed since the new rules went into effect, as dispensary owners take advantage of dwindling competition to raise prices. He said he has been buying lower-quality medical marijuana in bulk to save money. It just makes me feel stoned, not less sick, he said.
City officials said the new rules could be tweaked if necessary. This document is like a living organism that continues to evolve, said City Council member Ed Reyes, who helped draft the ordinance. I never saw this as a cure-all.
By JEAN GUERRERO
JUNE 19, 2010
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