LOS ANGELES -- The medicinal marijuana flow is coming to an end in the palm-shaded "vapor room" of the Pure Life Alternative Wellness Center.
Los Angeles' restrictive new ordinance to stem the spread of medical marijuana dispensaries in the city will ban on-site pot consumption. It may force the closure of as many as 800 outlets.
Over the past three years, this sprawling metropolis has fostered the wildest of markets for legal sales of marijuana for medical use. City leaders are trying now to rein it in.
Last month, the City Council passed an ordinance that caps the number of marijuana dispensaries at 70 while exempting another 100 pot clubs that were in business as of 2007. Dispensary owners have responded with threats of lawsuits and a possible November ballot fight to overturn the rules.
Los Angeles' battle to govern its medical marijuana industry offers cautionary lessons for other California cities grappling, in widely conflicting ways, with burgeoning pot sales and piqued legal arguments over the hazy rules of the trade.
Even some medical marijuana advocates say Los Angeles lost control of its neighborhoods when dispensaries started flowering in the city in 2006. A feeble moratorium, passed in 2007 to stop new pot clubs from coming in, failed to slow the spread.
The moratorium eventually was thrown out in court, and the estimated number of dispensaries reached 1,000.
"This was the biggest city in the world" to allow dispensaries "and the path of least resistance," said Don Duncan, state director of Americans for Safe Access, a group that promotes medical pot use. "It was the easiest place to come to do this."
Under the city ordinance, hundreds of dispensaries that opened after 2007 are due to be closed by April when the law takes full effect. Scores more will have to move away from schools, neighborhoods and alleys.
The city also is making a determined stand to interpret vague state laws that allow medical pot to be distributed through patient collectives that are supposed to operate as nonprofits.
Los Angeles police will audit dispensaries under the ordinance to ensure that "contributions" or "reimbursements" pot clubs get from users don't constitute profit-seeking sales.
"If they're engaging in sales of marijuana, what they're doing is illegal," said Assistant City Attorney Asha Greenberg.
"The pendulum," said Duncan, "is now swinging toward restriction."
At the Pure Life Center in West Los Angeles, amid comfy settees and candles adorned with pot leaves, Yamileth Bolanos operated her "Volcano Vaporizer" for one of the last times. It blew a hot gust through a strainer of marijuana, filling a plastic bag with vapor.
She administered the drug to Carlos Kruschewsky, 46, so the quadriplegic could inhale and ease shoulder spasms without lighting up.
"It's life-changing," Kruschewsky said in a soft voice as Bolanos gave him water to soothe his vocal cords. "Just now my muscles feel better."
Bolanos, a cancer and liver transplant survivor, opened the dispensary on bustling La Cienega Boulevard in 2007. Under the new law, she'll need to move because it sits within 1,000 feet of a school.
The law also bans people from ingesting medical pot at any dispensary.
"This room is not a party room," Bolanos said. "This is for patients who need to medicate. This is a place for safe use. And it is going to end."
Los Angeles City Council member Dennis Zine is unhappy for a different reason.
The ex-cop and former vice president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League said he wanted to "do something appropriate" and "compassionate" to accommodate emerging dispensaries.
But he said Los Angeles became overwhelmed with pot clubs, aided by cut-rate doctors offering medical cannabis recommendations for as low as $35. He is angry over the many dispensaries he says cater to recreational use by "people just looking to get high" rather than the medical needs of AIDS and cancer patients.
"There's a tremendous amount of abuse," Zine said. "We're not going to legalize marijuana under the guise of medical marijuana."
(E-mail reporter Peter Hecht at phecht(at)sacbee.com. For more stories, go to www.scrippsnews.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)