LOS ANGELES (AP) — Unable to rein in the hundreds of medical marijuana dispensaries that have cropped up across the nation's second largest city, the Los Angeles City Council on Tuesday considered a proposal to ban pot shops outright until it has clearer guidance from the state's highest court.
The city has fumbled with its medical marijuana laws for years, trying to provide safe and affordable access to the drug for legitimate patients while addressing worries by neighborhood groups that streets were being overrun by dispensaries and pot users.
Many cities have struggled with medical marijuana ordinances but none has had a bigger problem than Los Angeles, where pot shops have proliferated. At one point, the city ordered closure of the shops — a process that failed amid lawsuits and conflicting rulings by appellate courts.
Medical marijuana advocates and residents squared off again in front of the council on Tuesday, with some civic leaders saying efforts made during the past few years haven't done any good.
"We need to start with a clean slate," said Councilman Mitchell Englander. "Los Angeles has experimented with marijuana and has failed."
The proposed ban comes during a confusing time for Californians despite voter approval in 1996 for medicinal use of marijuana with a doctor's recommendation. The state Supreme Court has decided to clarify marijuana's hazy legal status by addressing whether local governments can ban medical marijuana clinics. But a hearing has yet to be set by the high court.
Meanwhile, U.S. authorities have cracked down on pot clinics around the state, saying such operations remain illegal under federal law.
The so-called "gentle ban" being proposed would eliminate storefronts but allow patients and caregivers to grow medical marijuana. Another plan being considered by the council would grant 100 pot clinics limited immunity under special restrictions involving where the shops can operate.
Los Angeles passed an ordinance two years ago that was supposed to shutter hundreds of pot dispensaries while capping the number in operation at 70. But a set of legal challenges against the city by collectives and last month's expiration of the ordinance thanks to a sundowner clause led to another surge of pot shops. City officials said 762 collectives have registered with the city and as many as 200 more could exist.
At least 178 California cities from Calistoga to Camarillo and 20 counties already have banned retail pot shops, according to the medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access.
However, reflecting the murky language of the state's medical marijuana laws, a handful of dispensaries have successfully challenged such local prohibitions in court along with laws that merely sought to regulate dispensaries.
Most recently, an appeals court in Southern California struck down Los Angeles County's two-year-old ban on dispensaries, ruling that state law allows cooperatives and collectives to grow, store and distribute pot. But in a separate case, an appeals court said federal law preempts local municipalities from allowing pot clinics.
Some Los Angeles leaders said they will continue to be in a holding pattern until the state Supreme Court issues a ruling.
"It's like a symphony that's out of tune," said Councilman Tom LaBonge of the council's efforts. "We need structure."
The hearing came a day after a priest, drug counselors and others decried crime and other social problems they say surround neighborhood marijuana dispensaries.
Among those who spoke at that gathering was a woman who complained about having to push her baby's stroller through clouds of marijuana smoke near dispensaries in her East Hollywood neighborhood.
Lisa Sarkin, 60, who lives in the San Fernando Valley, says there are 12 dispensaries within three miles of each other. Sarkin, who sits on a neighborhood council, said kids often walk past dispensaries on the way to school and some business owners who are near pot shops have complained of the strong scent of marijuana that wafts into their buildings.
Medical marijuana advocates and residents agree that access for the sick is vitally important and there are many dispensaries that are cash cows. How to strike a balance has been a challenge for many municipalities that don't have bans.
"We want legal access but this is the wild, wild West," said Sarkin, adding she supports the legalization of marijuana. "What's a collective with thousands of people in it? What is that?"
Daniel Sosa, a medical marijuana advocate, told council members it's fruitless to approve a ban that won't have any merit and will likely lead to more lawsuits.
"If you can't enforce it, why are you going to pass something?" Sosa asked the council.