Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Can only wonder what they're smoking in California

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Smoking marijuana can muddle the mind. Nothing makes the head spin, however, like trying to keep up with marijuana law in California. A decision this week by the Los Angeles City Council to ban the 800-odd outlets that sell marijuana in the city will only add to the confusion.

In 1996, California legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Sixteen other states followed, as did Washington, D.C. A multi-billion-dollar cultivation, distribution and retail industry emerged. Marijuana shops, euphemistically known as "dispensaries," sprouted all over the state, exploiting legal loopholes, variations in local regulations or vaguely worded laws. In November 2010, a voter initiative to entirely decriminalize small amounts of the drug failed, but not by much.

Things have gone downhill for California's pot-smokers since then. Federal law criminalizes cannabis under all circumstances, and last year federal prosecutors began a crackdown on the industry in some -- but not all -- of the states in which it has been decriminalized, including California.

Campaigners felt betrayed. Their relationship with the feds had never been easy, but they thought President Barack Obama had signalled his government would not pick fights with states over marijuana. Some demonstrators made their feelings known in Oakland last week, as the president made a campaign pit stop.

Now comes this latest outrage. The decision in Los Angeles, which passed without dissent, was taken after complaints from residents' groups about the proliferation of dispensaries in the city. It leaves room for "collectives" of three or fewer holders of prescriptions to grow their own stash, if they know how to do so. Confusingly, the council also voted to consider a proposal to allow 182 dispensaries to reopen. That will not happen for months, however, and meanwhile the ban should come into effect 30 days after it is signed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

If the law is implemented, many residents will be happy to see the closing of outlets that often barely pretended to be providing medical services. More responsible dispensaries bemoan the ban, but acknowledge rogue operators have been allowed to flourish and doctors writing prescriptions do not always give patients the information they need.

Activists are not opposed to stronger regulation of pot shops in Los Angeles. They point to several cities in California that have done a better job of licensing outlets. City governments in places such as Oakland acknowledge dispensaries, which pay taxes and provide employment, "have been an asset" to their cities, says Lynne Lyman, California director for the advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance. If the ban goes ahead, there is talk of more lawsuits -- opponents say it violates a recent district-court ruling -- and a referendum to overturn it.

A case before the state Supreme Court may ultimately show the way out of the fog, by providing clear guidance on the powers possessed by city and county governments to regulate marijuana dispensaries. No date has been set for the hearing, however, and, even as America's biggest state struggles to come to grips with its own laws, several others have placed marijuana-legalization initiatives on the ballot this November.

Most Americans now say they want to free the weed.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 30, 2012 A11

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