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Originally published May 22, 2013 at 6:11 AM | Page modified May 22, 2013 at 4:38 PM

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Vote on pot shops could end lingering LA issue

Voters approved a law limiting the number of medical pot shops in Los Angeles after politicians failed for years to corral the blossoming industry.

Associated Press

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LOS ANGELES —

Voters approved a law limiting the number of medical pot shops in Los Angeles after politicians failed for years to corral the blossoming industry.

The winning ballot measure on Tuesday caps the number of nonprofit dispensaries at about 135 from a high of nearly 1,000 a few years ago. It also imposes higher taxes, regulates hours of operation, and sets rules on proximity to parks and schools.

The new law was passed several weeks after the state Supreme Court gave municipalities the right to ban stores outright.

The move by Los Angeles voters could be the best chance yet to end the City Council's patchwork attempts to control or even eliminate marijuana stores - efforts that often backfired.

"I don't want to keep going on this legal merry-go-round," said attorney David Welch, who has represented dispensaries in various lawsuits against the city. "I think everyone wants this to be over."

Medical marijuana has been legal in California since voters approved it statewide in 1996. Regulating collectives has been a major challenge in many communities, none more so than the nation's second-largest city.

The number of Los Angeles dispensaries has surged since 2007, outnumbering Starbucks coffee shops and prompting a series of unsuccessful efforts by lawmakers to bring order to the industry.

The new law will do little to serve as a model for other cities, said professor Jessica Levinson of Loyola Law School.

"I think we've been the perfect picture of dysfunction," she said. "Most of the guidance is actually what not to do."

An ordinance was passed three years ago that slashed the number of shops from roughly 1,000 to 70. But the city was bombarded with dozens of lawsuits by dispensaries and the law expired last year, leading to another surge of pot shops.

Last summer, the city banned all shops, but repealed the move two months later after enough signatures were gathered to put a ballot measure to voters. Eventually, three measures were placed on Tuesday's ballot.

The prevailing proposition, known as Proposition D, received about 63 percent of the vote. Of the two defeated measures, one had been abandoned by supporters in favor of Proposition D; the other would not have limited the number of collectives but would have required audits and background checks of employees.

Opponents claimed Proposition D creates a medical marijuana monopoly among remaining shops.

Supporters of the winning measure, which was put on the ballot by the City Council and supported by both mayoral candidates, said it would balance the needs of ailing patients who say they need the drug with concerns about loitering and crime related to pot shops that popped up across the city.

The current number of landlords and shop owners could be around 2,000, said Jane Usher, special assistant city attorney, though officials have had difficulty determining firm numbers as new dispensaries open and others close.

Under the new law, which will take effect after the election is certified in about a month, dispensaries that aren't eligible to remain open will be notified by city officials to close or face possible civil or criminal action. There are no provisions to replace or reopen shops that close.

Owners forced out of business could end up taking a well-worn route to court.

"The pot shops are not going to take this lightly," Levinson said. "I think they will drag their feet exactly as long as it takes until police officers are at their door."

City officials are still awaiting a decision from the state's highest court over whether Los Angeles can exclude businesses that opened after a certain date. The suit challenged the 2010 ordinance, which mirrors the new law that only approved shops that were in business by 2007.

Usher said she's encouraged the city has better legal footing than it did three years ago.

"The good news is since we litigated so many of these issues that may be raised again, there are answers today whereas in 2010 there was not," she said.

Shops that can remain open still run the risk of being shut down by the U.S. government, which deems marijuana illegal and has raided clinics, prosecuted owners and filed lawsuits against landlords in California.

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