mmj-dispensaries-CaliforniaThe use of medical marijuana without criminal punishment became legal in the state of California back in 1996. Proposition 15 authorizes: the limited possession, cultivation, and use of marijuana by patients and their care providers for certain medicinal purposes recommended by a physician without subjecting such persons to criminal punishment.

California Storefront Dispensaries

Medical marijuana dispensaries have been operational in California for a long time now – even though they are not recognized under law! The law actually only recognizes cooperatives and collectives; that is, not-for-profit organizations.  The sale of medical cannabis was and still is strictly illegal under federal law, and the DEA has conducted scores of raids against medical cannabis businesses.

Obtaining an accurate figure for the number of dispensaries in California is almost impossible but estimates range between 500 and 1,000. For example:

  • According to the California State Board of Equalization, there are 500 marijuana clubs/dispensaries in California that bring in an estimated $870 million to $2 billion in revenue annually.
  • According to the Associated Press in an October 2009 report, “In Los Angeles alone, there are an estimated 800 dispensaries, more than any other city in the nation.
  • According to a December 2009 article in “Pasadena Weekly”, “…there are about 1,000-plus medical marijuana dispensaries now operating in California and openly distributing the drug.”

The Attorney General’s Guidelines for Medical Marijuana notes that storefront “dispensaries” are not explicitly recognized in state law, but that a “properly organized collective or cooperative” may legally dispense medical marijuana through a storefront provided it complies with certain conditions:

  • The guidelines do not envision dispensaries operating as patients “caregivers,” neither are they to be tolerated as for-profit businesses
  • Dispensaries are expected to file for a seller’s permit and pay sales taxes. In some cities and counties, business licenses and zoning permits are applicable
  • The guidelines also specify that cooperatives and collectives should use only marijuana legally grown or obtained by their own members, with no purchases from outside their membership (although, in fact, there is nothing in state or federal law that bans purchase of marijuana, medical or otherwise. Possession is banned but not purchase and possession is, of course, protected under Proposition 215)
  • Dispensaries must track and record the source of their cannabis

Cannabis Dispensaries in California: Timeline

Medical marijuana approved in a few specific California cities

California State Proposition 215 (the Compassionate Use Act) is passed. Patients may possess and use medical marijuana with a doctor’s recommendation

Senate Bill 420 (the Medical Marijuana Program Act) attempts to clarify the application of Proposition 215. It paves the way for voluntary a state-wide medical marijuana card program.

There are now four acknowledged cannabis dispensaries in Los Angeles, at: Hancock Park, Van Nuys, Rancho Park, and Cheviot Hills.

A 2,350% increase in medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles alone prompts LA City Council to adopt an Interim Control Ordinance. A moratorium on new dispensary storefronts is initiated and restrictions are placed on hours of operation. Restrictions are also imposed on the location of dispensaries in terms of their proximity to schools, churches, parks, and other dispensaries.

General Jerry Brown, California Attorney, issues a directive of guidelines for medical marijuana cooperatives. Included in the directive are the following regulations:

  • Must sell only to legitimate patients
  • Must operate as not-for-profit
  • Must only buy marijuana from members of the same cooperative
  • The price of the cannabis should only cover the cost, there should be no profit

Federal officials proclaim that they will stop blocking medical marijuana distribution and use in California.

January 2010
Without prior debate or discussion, Los Angeles City Council, endorse an ordinance that will lead to the closure of hundreds of medical cannabis dispensaries. This ordinance will also impose strict rules on the operation and locations of the cannabis clubs, shops and collectives that remain. The decree caps the number of dispensaries at 70 (excepting those registered with the city in 2007).

November 2010
The Californian electorate vote against the January dictat and Proposition 19 the Regulate, Control & Tax Cannabis Act is a ballot initiative on the November 2 state-wide ballot.  It was ultimately defeated, with 53.8% of the electorate voting ‘No’ against 46.2% voting ‘Yes.’

January 2011

SB 1449 reduces possession of under 1 ounce of cannabis from a misdemeanor to a civil infraction.

Cannabis Dispensaries in California: The Current Situation

In March, Los Angeles officials demanded the immediate closure of 141 medical marijuana dispensaries. There was also a proposal launched requiring the closure of 100 compassion clubs. The remaining dispensaries would amount to just ten.

In today’s news (July 27, 2011) four medical marijuana dispensaries in Oceanside have been served notices to close due to their lack of a business license and just last week, Bill Piper, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance issued a statement lambasting the administration for continuing to send mixed messages about enforcement in medical states.

And that just about sums up the current state of play with California’s medical cannabis dispensaries – confused.


Author Dianne Morgan

More posts by Dianne Morgan

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