LOS ANGELES -- Five years ago, the Los Angeles City Council thought it had reined in an explosion of pot businesses across this sprawling metropolis with a moratorium against new medical marijuana dispensaries. Hundreds more opened.
Now Los Angeles, with 762 documented dispensaries and scores more thought to be operating under the radar, has approved an outright ban on storefront marijuana providers. The city also enacted a controversial plan for medical marijuana users to grow their own pot.
But many question whether Los Angeles where Snoop Dogg blazes a fatty joint in ads for "free bong hits" at Hollywood's KushMart and City Compassionate Caregivers near downtown invites patrons to "medicate" in its 3-7 p.m. "happy hour" has finally figured out how to control its marijuana landscape.
While hundreds of dispensaries have closed elsewhere in California amid local crackdowns, federal raids and threats of prosecution, the City of Angels flutters in an alternative cannabis universe.
Los Angeles has become the morality play for medical marijuana and a failure of city regulation. It has lost key court rulings in favor of dispensaries and in some cases failed to enforce local standards that withstood legal challenges.
After its ineffectual 2007 moratorium, the city in 2010 passed a medical marijuana ordinance setting a limit of 186 dispensaries. Scores of stores shuttered, and the city threatened legal actions against 450 others that refused to close. But then a judge's order froze the ordinance. And another city effort to stem pot operations holding a lottery to set a limit of 100 dispensaries drew a slew of lawsuits.
Even as Los Angeles won in court such as a 2011 ruling affirming the city's right to restrict dispensaries it failed to stop new pot clubs from opening, often with retail licenses not specifying that they sold.
Some of Los Angeles' oldest and most reputable cannabis establishments blame city leaders for the chaos.
"Six years ago when we yelled and screamed for regulation, they didn't have the stomach for it," said Yamileth Bolanos, a cancer survivor who runs the Pure Life Alternative Wellness dispensary on La Cienega Boulevard. "And now because they didn't do anything, every greedy (expletive) and their mama came to L.A." to open dispensaries.
"Maybe the city wanted it to get so out of control that they had to ban it ," Bolanos said. "Maybe that was the evil plan to begin with."
Los Angeles was one of the last major cities in California to try to tackle the spread of cannabis outlets, which now flourish in much of the city. As many as 250 dispensaries sprouted on Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley. Pot leaf signs greet traffic on Melrose Avenue near Hollywood.
At a recent council meeting, Yolanda Rodriguez, a mother of small children from the Boyle Heights community, complained about pot smells from cannabis clubs that smothered the sweet bread scents of the neighborhood panadería.
Councilman José Huizar, who represents Rodriguez's East Los Angeles district, led the move for the dispensary ban. He argued the city had dithered too long, creating an intractable challenge.
"If we wait any longer" to close stores en masse "we will continue to chase our tail," Huizar said.
The City Council voted 14-0 last month to ban dispensaries and use some of the $2.5 million the city has collected in voter-approved medical marijuana taxes to mail closure orders to cannabis clubs and pursue legal actions to shutter them.