Pot Topic: Selling Marijuana Out Of Storefronts Simply Illegal, Attorneys Say

At the core of the battle in City Hall to regulate some 800 or so registered medical marijuana dispensaries is the concept of "over-the-counter sales." When the term is brought up, what's really meant is retail, storefront sales -- in contrast with the kind of nonprofit, smoke-what-you-grow "collectives" for the truly ill that were originally green lit by state law.

Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley and City Attorney Carmen Trutanich insist that nowhere in state law are storefront pot shops allowed. Dispensaries. Pot pharms. Medicinal shops. Whatever you want to call them, they're not legal. Period.

Prop. 215, which legalized medical marijuana in California in 1996, only allows for collectives where members share in the costs and benefits of cultivation on a strictly nonprofit basis. Never did the voters of California approve a law where anyone with a doctor's note could walk into a retail store and purchase pot.

Attorney General Jerry Brown's medical marijuana guidelines, issued last year, state "the earnings and savings of the business must be used for the general welfare of its members or equitably distributed to members in the form of cash, property, credits, or services."

It sounds somewhat like a "Kumbaya" festival, but it emphasizes the point: The state never meant "collectives" to become the kind of pot retailers we see all over Los Angeles today. They were meant to be almost socialist organizations in order to support "the cultivation and use of marijuana by seriously ill individuals upon a physician's recommendation," according to Brown.

"The collective should not purchase marijuana from, or sell to, non-members; instead, it should only provide a means for facilitating or coordinating transactions between members," states Brown.

Even the most red-eyed, pro-dispensary stoner can see that what we have in L.A. -- a virtual mall of marijuana -- is not what was envisioned in Prop. 215. (Of course, pro-medical-marijuana groups are threatening to sue should Los Angeles outlaw retail marijuana, and the City Council seems to be leaning toward a rule that will somehow provide a Mack-truck-sized loophole for cash sales of pot in the city).

"What the law envisaged in 1996 was that you as a patient could grow your own plant," says assistant City Attorney David Berger. "That was the protection given to you. It did not envisage walking off the street, putting down a piece of paper signed by a doctor, and putting down 85 dollars to get on eighth of an ounce of marijuana."

Indeed, under Brown's guidelines, "Although medical marijuana 'dispensaries' have been operating in California for years, dispensaries, as such, are not recognized under the law."

"I don't quite know where the term dispensary comes from in our law," says Berger. "It's not used in Prop. 215. It's an invention of the marijuana advocates to describe something and give it a title that sounds innocuous -- that sounds like something that is somehow authorized."

Still, members of the Los Angeles City Council, says assistant City Attorney David Berger, "want push the envelope." Of course the council has no business rewriting state law.

But you do.

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