La Virgen de Guadalupe decorates the facade on a medical marijuana dispensary on 4th Street. Photo by Emily Ochoa
La Virgen de Guadalupe decorates the facade on a medical marijuana dispensary on 4th Street. Photo by Emily Ochoa
La Virgen de Guadalupe decorates the facade on a medical marijuana dispensary on 4th Street. Photo by Emily Ochoa

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The soft buzz of a neon green cross blazes away. The audacious symbol proudly announces the sale of medical marijuana, lighting the way for consumers. It’s midday on a Saturday, and the 4th Health Care (4THC) dispensary’s parking lot at the corner of 4th and Velasco Streets is already crowded with eager users. This business is only one of the many “pot shops,” which have recently opened in Boyle Heights, and elsewhere in Los Angeles.

It isn’t just the neighbors who are concerned about such new dispensaries and the steady stream of traffic they bring. The debate regarding medical marijuana has prompted even more attention of late from the media, Congress, and most recently the courts.

In February, The California Supreme Court heard its first case regarding a city’s right to ban marijuana dispensaries. A decision is expected sometime in May, the same month that Los Angeles voters will weigh in on three competing medical marijuana ballot measures. The debate centers on whether or not “pot shops” remain operational, and to what extent they are regulated and taxed.

No shortage of dispensaries or customers

The Los Angeles city clerk estimates that there are between 800 and 1,000 dispensaries in Los Angeles. On a recent Saturday afternoon, only two months after its opening in Boyle Heights, the 4THC dispensary received around 250 clients, according to its armed security guard, Demetrio Miller. Miller greets clients as they enter. He verifies the authenticity of the customers’ prescriptions and scans their California Identification, recording their visit.

“[Customers] pretty much have to get a prescription from a doctor,” said Miller. “Most people that come in here use it for medical purposes, but that’s just what they’re telling me. Who knows what they’re really doing?” After presenting their IDs, customers step into the lounge. The strong, pungent smell of marijuana escapes from inside as the door opens and closes.

The vibration from the loud techno music pulses through the walls. Once inside, customers are permitted to self-medicate for an hour. Customers can smoke marijuana in pipes or bongs in the room. One of the most popular items is a hashish candy bar. Joseph Escobar, 22, has a prescription because of his arthritis pain. It is “beneficial in the right ways for those who need it,” he says as he heads into the 4THC dispensary. “You’re very relaxed, you’re very tranquil, and [in] a peaceful state of mind.”

Interpreting federal, state and local drug laws

Marijuana dispensaries have been a controversial presence in California since voters passed the Compassionate Use Act in 1996. The proposition granted chronically ill patients the right to grow or possess marijuana for medical purposes. Even so, under federal law, marijuana continues to be classified as an illegal substance. While California allows its sale, the conflict between state and federal law has created excessive misunderstandings among citizens, law enforcement and the courts.

“The laws are relatively new and the courts of appeals have not yet had the opportunity to rule on how they are to be interpreted, says attorney Bruce Margolin, Director of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), who has represented hundreds of clients convicted of marijuana misdemeanors. The uncertainty has led to a number of court cases. In one of the boldest, the case being heard by the California Supreme Court, a dispensary challenged the city of Riverside’s decision to ban dispensaries.

The court’s decision could set legal precedent. But legalization advocates argue that this “war on marijuana” is a waste of time and money. “The criminal enforcement of drug laws [is] expensive, and money could be better spent elsewhere,” says Margolin. The Drug Policy Alliance, which has branches in Washington, D.C., and seven states, describes itself as the nation’s leading organization in the promotion of alternatives to current drug policy It argues that the Unites States could better spend funds used for what it says is a $51 billion war on all illegal drugs.

Father John Moretta, of the Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights, has a very different view, as an outspoken critic of marijuana use, both medicinal and recreational. Recounting his experiences with drug users, Moretta says he doesn’t believe that most people visiting dispensaries have real ailments. “It’s funny how the pain increases on Friday and Saturdays,” he says referring to the days of higher sales.

In July 2012, the Los Angeles City Council voted on a citywide ban on dispensaries, resulting in the closure of 762 dispensaries. But one month later, the city was involved in more than 100 lawsuits as a result of the ban. By October of 2012, the City Council was forced to repeal the ban when marijuana advocates collected more than the necessary 27,425 signatures required to put the decision to a referendum.

Councilman José Huízar has been an outspoken proponent of shutting down dispensaries. While he supports the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, he believes that “the state needs to create a better way of providing access for seriously ill patients, while removing the scores of profiteers and recreational users who currently dominate the market.”

Father John Moretta from Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights. Photo by Emily Ochoa

Voters to weigh-in

The Los Angeles City Council decided to send the matter to the voters in the May election. Proposition D, backed by the City Council, allows only the oldest dispensaries to continue operating, and it taxes medical marijuana sales. Measure F, supported by a coalition of dispensaries and other medical marijuana groups, allows an unlimited number of dispensaries to operate as long as dispensaries pay taxes and meet other requirements.

The third measure, called Ordinance E, sponsored by the Committee to Protect Patients and Neighborhoods, bans all medical marijuana dispensaries except dispensaries open before 2007. Councilman Huízar is not endorsing any of the propositions, believing it’s better to wait for direction from the California Supreme Court. He wants the state legislature “to remove loopholes”¦ so that only those with legitimate medical needs have access to medical marijuana.”

Soon, however, the dispensary issue might be a moot point. For the past 17 years, California has led the way in marijuana legalization, being the first to legalize medical marijuana. With the full legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, California is expected to follow suit.

In a 2012 California Field Poll, 56 percent of the public said they were in favor of legalizing and taxing marijuana. Father Moretta believes the legalization of marijuana will bring more problems. His main concern is about the youth. He sees marijuana as a gateway drug that can lead to more serious drug use.

An increase in accessibility, he argues, will lead to an increase in young consumers. A 17-year-old Bravo student who uses marijuana has the opposite opinion. He believes that some kids are attracted to marijuana because it’s not legal. He says legalization “won’t increase [marijuana use] because the new users won’t find [the] thrill of smoking marijuana.” Whether legalization will influence marijuana usage is a common argument.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency believes that the demand for marijuana will escalate if legalized, while the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine (IOM) finds, “there is little evidence that decriminalization of marijuana use necessarily leads to a substantial increase in marijuana use.” Those in favor of the full legalization of marijuana say it could reap benefits for the whole country, especially in regards to the economy.

With legalization, marijuana will be treated similarly to alcohol — taxed and regulated. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, if California were to legalize marijuana, and tax and regulate the drug, the state would receive estimated revenue of $1.4 billion per year. The issue is expected to be on the ballot again in 2016.

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