Medical marijuana in Los Angeles has an inertia that's a marvel to behold. For years, it has existed in a state of quasi-legality — condemned by each successive presidential administration, encouraged by the state Legislature, and awkwardly condoned by the city.
No matter what laws are enacted or court decisions handed down, medical pot keeps on trucking.
So when the City Council, in late July, voted 14-0 to ban pot shops as of Sept. 6 — at least until the California State Supreme Court sorts out whether medical cannabis can be sold for money — people asked, Was this finally it? Was it the end of L.A.'s wondrous era of mostly legal pot?
On Aug. 30, the answer was an emphatic no. A coalition of patients, dispensaries, and a powerful supermarket union that has added dispensary workers to its union rolls, turned in enough signatures to let L.A. voters themselves decide for or against the ban.
Thanks to an obscure paragraph in the L.A. City Charter, the signature gatherers had the power to place the unanimous vote of the powerful City Council in limbo. Now, the council's ban is dead until residents decide, probably in March, which side wins — or until the City Council comes up with a non-ban plan.
"I'm officially not disappointed, although personally, I am disappointed" that the ban did not take effect, says Matt Cohen, who operates Natural Way of L.A. dispensary.
Cohen is happy that the signature-gathering effort means his dispensary won't be shuttered. But his underlying support for the ban shows the fractured nature of L.A.'s medical marijuana dispensary industry: Cohen believed a city ban would eventually lead to a more orderly, regulated market.
"I want the city, once and for all, to get a grip on this, to regulate pot shops and charge them all the same fees," Cohen says.
The referendum strategy used by the dispensaries is an unusually powerful tool — one that is very, very rarely tapped. Under city law residents have 30 days from the moment the mayor signs a disputed new law to collect signatures asking voters to put the issue to a citywide vote.
The trick for the dispensaries was gathering the huge number of required signatures — an amount equal to 10 percent of voters active in the last mayoral election, in 2009.
That year's re-election of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was a bore, with the mayor lagging in popularity and only Republican opponent Walter Moore spending enough to gain a profile. Just 285,658 votes were cast in a city of 3.8 million.
That meant the anti-ban pot activists had to get only 28,658 signatures — 10 percent of the last turnout — by Aug. 30. In only 12 quick days, they gathered more than 50,000, which will now be verified by the City Clerk.
"We're overwhelmed," says Rigo Valdez, of the United Food and Commercial Workers local 770, which represents employees from about 50 dispensaries. "We feel like the city has embraced our position."
If 28,658 of those signatures are found to be good — which is likely — the City Council has four options:
• Water down its ban dramatically enough to avoid this ballot showdown.
• Put this new weed referendum to a vote in the closely watched March 5 mayoral primary and have a very public fight against the dispensaries.
• Put the weed referendum to a vote at a "special election," when far fewer voters will participate.
• Launch a crackdown to cut back the number of dispensaries, in anticipation of one of the above.
"I don't know if City Council is going to say, 'OK, this is the way the wind is blowing, we're going to repeal the ban and adopt regulations,' or if they're gonna want to take this directly to a vote," Don Duncan, California director of Americans for Safe Access, says. "Either way, I think we'll prevail."
A referendum designed to overturn the sitting City Council is rare. Nearly a decade ago, in 2003, the City Council banned lap dances. Angry strip-club owners spent a bundle on paid signature gatherers, collecting more than 100,000 signatures.
The City Council withdrew its lap dance ban.
Nobody knows if history will repeat itself.
"If the referendum qualifies for the ballot, it will go to the voters," Edward Johnson, a spokesman for City Council President Herb Wesson, insists via email.
But City Councilman Paul Koretz is asking the council to drop its all-out ban, regroup and back his proposal to let the city's original 182 dispensaries stay open, including Cohen's Natural Way of L.A. dispensary.
Those 182 dispensaries formally registered with the city before it enacted a 2007 moratorium banning more dispensaries. But the moratorium had no effect — an additional 600 to 900 dispensaries opened. They are not registered with the city.
But Koretz may be more talk than fight. In July, just after Koretz voted "no" against the Sept. 6 ban, he approached the city clerk and had his vote "retroactively" changed to "yes." This allowed Koretz to claim both positions, and to make the City Council ban vote appear to be unanimous.
Now, Koretz argues that cutting back the dispensaries to 182 "protects both patients and neighborhoods." But his ideas are clearly opposed by the hundreds of dispensaries that would be wiped out.
Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council president Michael Larsen predicts that the City Council will hold fast for a complete ban while trying to persuade voters to its side.
Larsen says Koretz's idea of slashing the dispensaries to 182 is "not what [the weed dispensary industry] is interested in."
When the City Council tried to cut back to the original 182 once before, Larsen notes, the broader dispensary industry's "reaction was 70 lawsuits."
But the immediate concern of many medical marijuana customers is that LAPD has targeted some dispensaries for shuttering — and may choose to continue or expand that effort, referendum or not.
The City Council could ask the Drug Enforcement Agency to help LAPD enforce federal law, which defines marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance illegal for any use.
Councilman José Huizar, probably City Hall's toughest talker against pot shops, told the Daily News' Rick Orlov that if the Sept. 6 ban is rendered moot until March by the signatures turned in last week, "We will enforce state and federal laws on marijuana."
City leaders may be already moving into position to do just that.
On Aug. 22, the City Council approved Councilman Bernard Parks' motion to instruct LAPD to work with the DEA to "create a citywide enforcement strategy to deal with medical marijuana collectives."
Such a strategy could go wider than this year's object lesson in the San Fernando Valley's sprawling Devonshire Division. In that huge suburban corner of L.A., LAPD narcotics officers showed their muscle by apparently closing down every medical marijuana dispensary in the division.
LAPD's position is that it is illegal for medical marijuana collectives to take money.
Huizar is clearly staking out that ground, leading up to the probable March vote on the weed ban by L.A. residents. He says: "Dispensaries do not have a right to exist."