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Anaheim California's prohibition of medical marijuana dispensaries

While Anaheim closes pot shops, Costa Mesa could allow regulated dispensaries as soon as May.DAVID MCNEW, GETTY IMAGES

Proposition 215

Medical marijuana became legal in California after 55.6 percent of voters across the state approved Proposition 215 in November 1996. Known as the California Compassionate Use Act, people with chronic illnesses are allowed to grow or purchase cannabis with a doctor's prescription.

The law was updated when Gov. Gray Davis signed the Medical Marijuana Protection Act, creating an identification card system for patients.

More than 20 states have followed California's lead in legalizing pot for medicinal purposes, but the federal government still considers the drug to be illegal.

Because of the ambiguous wording of California's law, cities and counties have struggled with regulating marijuana collectives, or outright banning the businesses. The California Supreme Court ruled in May 2013 that municipalities have the right to prohibit dispensaries within their jurisdictions.

Tony Jalali believes medical marijuana should be accessible. Still, he is evicting a small dispensary in an office complex under orders from Anaheim officials.

Meanwhile, in Costa Mesa, Joyce Weitzberg is hoping to reopen her cannabis collective in a town where leaders have reversed course and are now taking steps to regulate and tax marijuana sales.

Between those cities is Santa Ana, where Cypress Hill rapper “B-Real” last week won a lottery that puts him on a path to legally distribute medical marijuana in the city.

Dazed and confused? There’s reason for that. Orange County communities are taking dramatically differing stands to deal with the proliferation of medicinal pot shops – nearly 19 years after voters approved a statewide measure legalizing medical marijuana.

“I think that discrepancy comes from a misunderstanding on one side, and more tolerance on the other,” said Steele Smith III, director of the Orange County Collective Alliance, an advocacy group for medical marijuana dispensaries in Orange County.

“On one hand, Anaheim has heavy-handed and egregious laws that will be detrimental to patients,” Smith said. “On the other, you’re seeking a progressive attitude for safe access and eliminating cannabis prohibition.”

ANAHEIM’S ‘GAME OF WHACK-A-MOLE’

Jalali’s case illustrates the costs and complexities of Anaheim’s 40 dispensary-related lawsuits in the last eight years.

Three years ago, the federal government and Anaheim each filed lawsuits against Jalali for leasing space to a medical marijuana dispensary. The dispensary subsequently closed because of the suits.

But a year later, a judge dismissed the federal government’s case. Still, Anaheim pushed ahead with its suit against Jalali, a software engineer.

In the meantime, another dispensary, Anaheim Holistic Care, leased an office eight months ago on the second floor of Jalali’s building, which also houses an insurance office, a dentist’s office and other businesses at Ball Road and Magnolia Avenue.

Last month, a Superior Court judge ruled that Jalali has to shut down Anaheim Holistic Care because Anaheim has the right to enforce its prohibition on dispensaries. His attorneys are appealing.

Jalali has since issued a 30-day eviction notice to the dispensary, which remains open. A hearing is scheduled for later this month to determine whether Jalali is in contempt of court for failing to immediately close the pot shop.

“As a property owner, I should be able to rent an office to anybody, but the city is preventing me from providing a safe haven for people who need medical marijuana,” Jalali said.

Since 2012, Anaheim city officials have paid $602,612 to the law firm of Best Best & Krieger to defend the city’s ban on dispensaries. Last week, the City Council adopted a law allowing the city to file civil and criminal charges against landlords such as Jalali who rent space to medical marijuana dispensaries.

“We are literally playing a game of whack-a-mole with businesses that know they’re operating illegally,” said Anaheim Councilwoman Kris Murray, who suggested the aggressive stance in fall.

“We are not doing anything to hamper a patient’s ability to use marijuana for medicinal purposes,” Murray said. “We’re just holding those accountable who willfully violate the city’s law.”

Anaheim, which has its own water and power utility, cuts off dispensaries from those services. Some of the businesses move elsewhere, but a handful of storekeepers are staying open by using generators or car batteries.

The risky practice has sparked at least three fires, city officials said. In October, firefighters rescued a dispensary worker overcome by carbon monoxide fumes from an illegally rigged generator.

Of the 179 pot shops known to have operated in Anaheim, 16 remain open. Medical marijuana patient Marla James of Anaheim said the closures have forced her to purchase the drug from dealers selling on the streets and at cheap motels near Disneyland.

“What you’ve done is create a monster, you created a black market,” James told the City Council. “We do not like going underground to get our pot, but you’ve given us no choice.”

Anaheim Councilwoman Lucille Kring said she was sympathetic to James and others who need marijuana to relieve pain. At Kring’s request, the City Council will ask state lawmakers to limit the sale of medical marijuana to retail pharmacies, rather than at collectives.

“I think that there has to be a way that we can be compassionate and help the people who truly need this,” Kring said.

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