Around the country, medical marijuana is booming and retail dispensaries are opening in increasing numbers. Medical pot shops are now allowed in Massachusetts, Nevada, New Mexico and 10 other states.
The growing number of dispensaries across the United States offers badly needed access to patients. Many of them aren’t able to grow their own marijuana, as they were required to do in many states before dispensaries were approved in recent years.
But the rosy picture for clinics in much of the country is definitely not reflected in one region: California. There, pot stores are closing by the hundreds as the federal government and local officials unite to drive most of the industry out of business or underground.
Much of the trouble stems from the chaotic nature of California’s medical marijuana industry. When voters there approved medicinal weed in 1996, the law failed to set many guidelines for the industry. So dispensaries eventually popped up everywhere, opening by the thousands in the last few years.
Cities like Los Angeles became crowded with barely regulated dispensaries. It often wasn’t clear which outlets complied with state law and which didn’t. Since weed is still illegal at the federal level, the DEA and other federal agencies stepped in and used the lack of solid rules as an excuse to crack down on the industry in California.
At the same time, local officials in more than 80 percent of the state are using zoning and other municipal regulations to keep dispensaries from operating. Only a handful of liberal counties, from Los Angeles to San Francisco, have opted to keep the doors open to pot clinics.
The end result is a disparate patchwork of communities in California where patients can buy medical marijuana in the open, surrounded by much larger areas where they cannot. Patients may be forced to drive hundreds of miles for medication, and many ultimately resort to the black market.
California seems to be the one dark spot on the horizon for medical marijuana dispensaries in the United States. Elsewhere, lawmakers seem to be heeding the lessons of the Golden State. Some states are limiting dispensaries by geography, others by size, and all are imposing stringent rules and regulations that were never adopted statewide in California.
The general policy of the federal law enforcement in recent years has been to focus on medical marijuana operations it believes are in violation of the state laws that created them. In California this has added to the confusion for many dispensary operators because the law there is so unclear.