LA haze begins to clear as new law goes into effect, some pot dispensaries close

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The haze is lifting in Los Angeles.

Not the city's infamous smog or the morning fog that rolls in from the Pacific Ocean.

The haze was stoked by the hundreds of medical marijuana dispensaries that proliferated in recent years, flooding the fledgling industry with cash and high-grade pot known as "kush."

Many of those pot shops began closing Monday, as a new ordinance took effect to help the city keep track of the businesses while pushing them toward industrial areas and away from schools and other public gathering places.

Across the city, disgruntled dispensary owners were shutting their doors in fear that they could face civil fines or criminal charges.

City officials believe the new law will slash the number of collectives to somewhere between 70 and 130 while providing stricter guidelines for the ones that remain.

Dan Halbert, who runs Rainforest Collective west of downtown, put a large sign outside his storefront that read, "Hundreds of jobs lost, millions of tax revenues lost, another vacant building in Los Angeles. Drugs back on the street."

Halbert is part of an ongoing lawsuit to overturn the ordinance. Still, he thought it would be best to shut down until the case gets resolved.

"I didn't come here to break any laws," Halbert, 45, said. "We have several thousand patients, who are all very distraught. They don't know where they are going to go."

It wasn't immediately known how many pot shops had closed. Authorities intended to take a tally then regroup to determine what enforcement action should be taken. The count could take several weeks.

"We continue to work with the city attorney's office on establishing an enforcement strategy," police Capt. Kevin McCarthy said. "The issue at hand is whether to proceed using a criminal, civil or a combined process on the dispensaries that violate the ordinance."

The doors were locked at American Eagle Collective in the Eagle Rock area. During a 15 minute span, 10 cars pulled into the mini-mall where it's located. Several people tried to enter the dispensary, with one throwing up his arms in disgust. They all declined comment.

A mile away at the House of Kush, a sign informed clients the business was no longer open. A man wearing a black security shirt said the collective was closed.

A number of shops that registered before a 2007 moratorium have six months to prove they meet the new guidelines, which include staying more than 1,000 feet from schools, parks and other public sites and paying an administrative fee of more than $1,000.

"All of us who chose to play by the rules as laid down by the city have been waiting years for this day," marijuana collective owner Joao Silverstein said.

Pot shop owner Frank Sheftel walked out of the city clerk's office, grinning and waving his paperwork in victory as he shook hands with another collective operator.

"There's a lot of excitement," he said. "The city is finally putting us in the position that we don't have to look over our shoulder in fear that the city is going to come close us down."

There was little disagreement that local government was to blame for the explosion of pot clinics. The City Council struggled for years to devise a law that would provide accessible, affordable medicine for patients while addressing concerns from residents that the clinics were a blight on neighborhoods.

Without a law in place, the number of dispensaries grew from a mere four in 2005 to several hundreds last year. A hardship exemption in the moratorium allowed many of those shops to open.

"It was maddeningly frustrating," said Michael Larsen, president of the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council, who said there were 21 dispensaries within a 2½-mile radius. "We would see these pot shops open up left and right with absolutely no regulations. The frustration was with the council. They had failed in this situation."

After much debate, which even included the suggestion that the city open its own dispensary, the council approved the ordinance in January.

Halbert said the city hasn't equally evaluated the dispensaries. He argued that it was unfair to allow some to stay open based simply on a date rather than an examination of whether they were abiding by the law.

"They are drawing an arbitrary line in the sand," he said. "They are throwing out the good with the bad."


AP Writer Raquel Dillon contributed to this report.