Who knew there were so many sick people in Los Angeles? It’s as if the city has been struck with a plague. In a sense, it has. In 1996, Californians passed Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act, decriminalizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Distilled to its essence, the law authorizes ailing people, with the recommendation of a doctor, to grow, possess, and use modest amounts of marijuana as treatment for their conditions. The measure seemed straightforward, but much confusion has ensued.

By now, the definitions of “ailment” and “doctor” have been stretched well beyond the point of absurdity. Today, anyone can walk into hundreds of storefront “clinics” that have sprung up around the city and state for a brief $100 consultation and come out claiming a medical condition that may be alleviated by using pot. The doctor will give the “patient” a written recommendation that immunizes him from prosecution under state drug laws—though not from being arrested. A person who finds himself ticketed or arrested for marijuana possession must still appear in court and satisfy a judge that he is a legitimate patient using the drug for relief (which is apparently a low bar). Even so, simple possession of marijuana is more or less ignored by most police officers, certainly those with whom I work in Los Angeles. More than once, I’ve had the odd experience of standing at a crime scene, with some unlucky murder victim stretched out on the sidewalk and cops milling about, only to smell and then see someone firing up a joint among the onlookers beyond the yellow tape. “There’s a lot of crime in my neighborhood,” one can imagine the man saying to his marijuana doctor. “People get shot all the time. I need help with the stress.” The doctor might reply: “Good enough for me. Here’s your note. And remember: it’s not addictive, so you can smoke it every day.”

Surely there aren’t enough cancer patients in Los Angeles to keep hundreds of dispensaries in business. Obviously, some people just like getting high. California’s business climate is among the most hostile in the nation, but the law of supply and demand remains in force. The state is liberally dotted with dispensaries peddling all kinds of marijuana to people with all kinds of ailments, real or imagined. National Public Radio reported in 2009 that the state’s pot dispensaries had surpassed the number of Starbucks. In some Los Angeles neighborhoods, it’s easier to find a dispensary than a Rite Aid, a CVS, or a Walgreens.

But this roaring trade in marijuana does not sit well with some, especially the U.S. Department of Justice agents charged with enforcing the nation’s drug laws. Despite the move in many states to decriminalize marijuana or authorize its use for medical purposes, it remains a Schedule I drug under federal law—meaning that, in the eyes of the feds, it has a high potential for abuse and no recognized medical purpose. Thus, medical marijuana dispensaries operating in full compliance with local laws nonetheless find themselves targeted by the Justice Department—sometimes in the form of DEA raids, arrests, and prosecutions, at other times by means of forfeiture actions.

In Oakland and San Jose, the Justice Department has moved to seize the properties of Harborside Health Center. In nearby Berkeley, the DOJ initiated a similar action against the Berkeley Patients Group. Rather than comply, Oakland and Berkeley officials have filed suit to block the seizures. “It is time for the federal government to wake up and stop these asset forfeiture actions,” Berkeley mayor Tom Bates said in a statement. “Berkeley Patients Group has complied with the rules and caused no problems in the city. The federal government should not use its scarce resources to harass local law-abiding businesses.”

I am agnostic on the medical benefits of marijuana, but I’ve heard enough anecdotes about the relief it provides to cancer patients and others that it strikes me as a cruel misuse of federal power to unleash the Justice Department on these businesses. As Mayor Bates said, they are operating within the laws established with the blessing of local authorities. Surely the federal leviathan could be directed to more worthy purposes than the harassment of people engaged in locally sanctioned commerce.

But just as residents of Oakland and Berkeley may have their own ideas about medical marijuana, Angelenos have the right to take a different view. In May, Los Angeles voters passed Proposition D, one of three competing proposals on the ballot attempting to clarify how the city would regulate marijuana dispensaries. The measure eventually will slash the number of dispensaries from around 700 to no more than 135. Only those dispensaries in business before 2007 will be allowed to continue operating, a condition sure to invite legal action from those forced to shut their doors. Why, they may rightly ask, should the city let these 135 dispensaries monopolize a market that the evidence shows can support perhaps hundreds more? The cut-off date and the maximum number aren’t entirely arbitrary: 135 was the number of dispensaries open when the L.A. City Council imposed a moratorium on new outlets in 2007. Dispensary owners successfully challenged the city moratorium as a violation of due process. Opponents of Prop. D believe they might overturn it on similar grounds.

If marijuana is indeed a legitimate medicine, why not let the market decide how many people can sell it? And if it isn’t, why not end the charade and shut down all the dispensaries? By attempting to bring clarity to the situation, unfortunately, Angelenos have only heightened the confusion.


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