Officials in the United States are vowing to crack down on medical marijuana facilities even as the Obama administration signals a new hands-off policy on the drug.
Los Angeles officials have been agonising for two years over a move to introduce what they call sensible guidelines to help regulate the booming industry.
In the US, 14 states have laws allowing the use of medical marijuana, but no state has gone further than California and no city has gone further than LA, where there are more marijuana dispensaries than public schools.
Brian Berens is the owner of Green Oasis, a medical marijuana dispensary in LA.
"Daily I would say we get about 30 to 50 people in a day. We service the local community and most of the people live within two miles of the dispensary," he said.
"Our collective is a little bit different than most; we're a large operation, we have a second floor - we have a vapour lounge which is much like an Amsterdam cafe."
He says his medical marijuana cooperative complies with state laws, but the city of Los Angeles is vowing to eradicate what it calls the illegal sales of marijuana in many of the city's dispensaries.
David Berger, an assistant city attorney for the city of Los Angeles, says not even 10 per cent of the dispensaries are selling marijuana for legitimate reasons.
"How many places are there selling marijuana? About a thousand - how many of them are genuinely supplying medical marijuana to people legitimately in need? Perhaps a hundred," he said.
"What these other places are doing is basically saying, 'if you're a recreational user, if you just want to get high, find a doctor who for $150 will write you a recommendation, come in here on a nod and a wink and we will give you marijuana'."
The city of Los Angeles says California state law only allows the exchange of marijuana between growers and patients who are members of a cooperative and that it has to be on a non-profit, non-cash basis.
But Mr Berger says that for the past two years, medical marijuana dispensaries have mushroomed in the city.
"How did it happen? It's because the law that allowed this to come into effect was very poorly written and expressed in very broad terms," he said.
"And you know the emotion of allowing seriously ill people to obtain some relief was used to basically allow a poorly written law into effect."
'For medicinal use only'
LA is now trying to mount a crackdown. The council will debate an ordinance next month that introduces strict new rules about medical marijuana dispensaries.
Mr Berger says marijuana collectives, not shops, is the way forward.
"It has to be a collective, not a shop, a collective, and a collective is basically a group of people who come together for a common purpose," he said.
"In this case, it's to cultivate marijuana for medicinal use only and only amongst themselves. They cannot sell it.
"All they can do is share it amongst themselves and share the costs of cultivating the marijuana."
He also says the dispensaries will not be able to have more than two kilograms of marijuana on the premises at any one time.
No on-site consumption will be allowed and the collectives will not be able to be within 300 metres of schools, parks or other collectives.
Threat of legal action
But Mr Berens says the owners of medical marijuana facilities will fight the ordinance in court if it is passed.
"I don't know if they will be able to ratify ordinances in November - this might be just a lot of lip service for the public," he said.
"Even if they do, we have already notified Los Angeles of certain points in the proposed ordinances that our attorney will sue them if they approve them."
While the city of Los Angeles tries to crack down on medical marijuana dispensaries, the Obama administration has told federal authorities not to arrest or prosecute medical marijuana users and suppliers who are not violating local or state laws.
In a statement, US Attorney General Eric Holder says: "It will not be a priority to use federal resources to prosecute patients with serious illnesses or their caregivers who are complying with state laws on medical marijuana."
"But we will not tolerate drug traffickers who hide behind claims of compliance with state law to mask activities that are clearly illegal," the statement adds.
The city of Los Angeles says its planned crackdown would comply with these guidelines.
It says the Obama administration is making it clear that its hands-off policy towards medical marijuana only applies to places that are complying with state and local law.
But Mr Berger thinks the Obama administration's policy is the seed from which the movement to legalise all marijuana will grow.
October 30, 2009