UCLA Study: Number of LA Pot Shops Less Than Half of City Estimates

THE CITY - The number of medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles is less than half the number often cited by city officials, according to a UCLA study.

Bridget Freisthler, associate professor of social welfare at UCLA's Luskin School of Public Affairs, found there were 472 medical marijuana dispensaries in business as of Tuesday (Sept. 4).
City officials have regularly estimated the number of dispensaries at around 1,000.

Freisthler said it didn't surprise her that the number of open dispensaries was lower than the estimated number often cited by city officials.

"I thought there would be around 550," she said. [The 472 number is] a little lower than what I thought."

Freisthler is in the second year of a five-year study funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, examining how dispensaries impact neighborhoods.

"To be able to do that accurately, we had to get an accurate count of locations of all the dispensaries in L.A. City," she said.

Freisthler and her team of researchers combed through the city's finance list, Internet sources and trade publications to nail down addresses associated with possible dispensaries in the LA area. They found 875 unique locations, all of which researchers visited in the last month to determine if they were operating as medical marijuana dispensaries.

And though the team recorded 472 dispensaries in business, Freisthler said it's likely the number will fluctuate.

"Has the number changed as of today even? Probably," she said.

The city recently mailed out letters to 1,046 individuals or businesses notifying them of a "Gentle Ban" on medical marijuana storefronts approved by the City Council in July.

Assistant City Attorney Asha Greenberg said "It doesn’t surprise us" that the UCLA study has come up with a number at odds with the 1,046 on the list.

Greenberg said the City’s list of dispensaries is based on the number of individuals who have contacted the City and registered with the Department of Finance as medical marijuana collectives or dispensaries, even though they may not actually have a functioning dispensary.

Those on the city's list who aren't operating storefronts "are trying to establish some kind of foothold, so to speak, and we never actually confirmed the physical presence of the dispensaries," Greenberg said. "We wanted the widest universe of people possible to be aware of the [Gentle Ban] ordinance."

Rick Coca, communications director for Councilmember José Huizar, said he’s perplexed by how the
UCLA researchers "checked on all the dispensaries that are not on the City's radar."

Huizar’s office, which has been at the forefront of the City Council’s efforts to ban medical marijuana clinics, "gets calls all the time about new [marijuana] shops opening up," Coca said, adding that "even if those numbers hold up, our 2010 ordinance, which we modified in 2011, says there could only be 70 dispensaries. In 2011, we changed that number to 100—and if there are now nearly five times as much, that's a major problem."

Meanwhile, the City Attorney’s office has suspended the Gentle Ban ordinance in light of a petition containing some 50,000 signatures that advocates of medical marijuana storefronts presented to the City Clerk on Aug. 30 in an effort to repeal the ordinance.

In a letter sent on Wednesday, City Attorney Carmen Trutanich noted that the ordinance would not be enforced "throughout the time it will take for the City Clerk to verify the signatures on the referendum petition (estimated to be 15-45 days)."

On Thursday, City Clerk June Lagmay announced that the raw number of signatures on the petition was sufficient to examine and certify the signatures for validity.

The City Clerk's office has until Sept. 20 to do a random sampling of the signatures. If the sampling indicates the petition has the required number signatures, the Clerk will inform the City Council of its options: Repeal the ordinance; Call a special election to be held not earlier than 110 days or later than 140 days after the Council action on the petition; or add the ordinance to the next regular City election to be held more than 110 days from certification of the petition, which in this case would be the City's March 5, 2013, Primary Nominating Election.

While the battle over the ordinance is continuing, Councilmember Huizar told Patch on Tuesday that the Los Angeles Police Department would be conducting enforcement activities against marijuana clinics in accordance with state law that prohibits the sale of marijuana for profit and provides only for its cultivation or distribution through collectives of three or fewer individuals.

Besides, said Huizar, a so-called “Sunset Clause” in the City’s previous ordinance does not recognize marijuana clinics as legitimate businesses under land use and other regulations.

Greenberg concurred with Huizar that if the LAPD chooses to shut down marijuana clinics, that would be "its own prerogative."

(Ajay Singh is the editor of and Meredith Skrzypczak is a contributor to EagleRock.Patch.com where this report was first posted.)

Vol 10 Issue 73
Pub: Sept 11, 2012