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L.A. marijuana dispensary law challenged in court

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Medical marijuana activists filed suit on Tuesday seeking to block a new Los Angeles ordinance they say is overly restrictive and would force virtually every pot dispensary in the city to close.

Provisions largely banning dispensaries from residential and commercial areas and giving them a week to find a new location once the law takes effect constitute a violation of due process rights, the lawsuit says.

"The requirement to find a new location within seven days is completely unreasonable," said Joe Elford, chief counsel for the group Americans for Safe Access, who filed the suit in Los Angeles Superior Court on behalf of two dispensaries.

The statute, passed by the City Council on January 26 and signed into law a week later by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, cannot be implemented before March 14, and only after separate action is taken to establish application fees. That may take several more weeks.

The lawsuit seeks a court order barring the measure from taking effect, and Elford's group called on city leaders to negotiate a compromise.

The exact number of dispensaries in the city is not clear. Estimates range from about 500 to 1,000, with most of those opened after the Obama administration halted federal raids on medical marijuana clinics last year.

If the new law takes effect, all but about 140 dispensaries licensed before a brief moratorium in 2007 will be required to shut down. Those that remain would have to move at least 1,000 feet from schools, public parks, libraries and places of worship.

They also would be prohibited from being located next door to, across the street or across an alley from homes.

Supporters of tighter regulations have said the spread of cannabis stores in the city has gotten out of hand, with many establishments attracting the wrong element and catering as much to recreational drug users as to cancer patients.

But critics say the ordinance as enacted threatens to shut down all dispensaries, amounting to a de facto ban undermining the 1996 ballot measure that made California the first U.S. state to decriminalize cannabis for medical purposes.

A 2003 law went even further, allowing pot to be cultivated and distributed to prescription-holding patients through nonprofit collectives, as dispensaries are formally called.

However, city prosecutors in Los Angeles have taken the position that cash transactions for medical marijuana remain forbidden, and have launched their own crackdown on dispensaries that operators also are fighting in court.

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