By Greg Risling
LOS ANGELES — A countdown to the closure of hundreds of medical marijuana shops in Los Angeles is set to begin after a drawn-out legal battle led the city council to vote unanimously to shutter the shops — but it may not be over.
After Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa signs the ordinance as expected, pot shops will have 30 days to shut down lucrative operations that blossomed around the nation's second biggest metropolis. On Tuesday, the city council voted 14-0 to ban them.
As many as 900 dispensaries will be affected by the new ordinance, but it's unclear what will happen if they disobey the order. Legal questions remain unanswered by the state's highest court.
The city has fumbled with its medical marijuana laws for years, trying to provide safe and affordable access to the drug for legitimate patients while addressing worries by neighborhood groups that streets were being overrun by dispensaries and pot users.
"Relief is on the way," said Councilman Jose Huizar, who introduced the so-called "gentle ban."
Many cities have struggled with medical marijuana ordinances, but none has had a bigger problem than Los Angeles, where pot shops have proliferated. At one point, the city ordered closure of the shops — a process that failed amid lawsuits and conflicting rulings by appellate courts.
This time around, the city has a stronger case if pot shop owners sue, city officials said. A recent appellate court ruling seems to support the new ordinance that refers to a marijuana collective as three or fewer people.
The ban allows hospices and home health agencies to provide medical pot. Letters will be sent to the dispensaries advising them of the ban.
"A judge could file an injunction but we think that is unlikely," said Jane Usher, a special assistant city attorney.
The ban further adds to confusion for Californians, who in 1996 approved medicinal use of marijuana with a doctor's recommendation. The state Supreme Court has decided to clarify the drug's hazy legal status by addressing whether local governments can ban medical marijuana clinics, but a hearing has yet to be set.
Meanwhile, federal authorities have cracked down on pot clinics around the state, saying such operations remain illegal under U.S. law.
Los Angeles passed an ordinance two years ago that was supposed to shutter hundreds of pot dispensaries while capping the number in operation at 70. But legal challenges from collectives and that ordinance's expiration last month led to another surge of pot shops.
City officials said 762 collectives have registered with the city and as many as 200 more could exist.
"We need to start with a clean slate," Councilman Mitchell Englander said before the vote. "Los Angeles has experimented with marijuana and has failed."
The new ban could be temporary for some dispensaries. A motion made by Councilman Paul Koretz called for city staff to draft an ordinance that would allow about 180 pot shops to reopen after a moratorium was enacted years ago. That motion isn't expected to be considered for several months.
After the vote Tuesday, some medical marijuana advocates shouted expletives, while others questioned where they could get the drug in the future.
"This is an outrage that the city council would think a reasonable solution to the distribution of medical marijuana would be to simply outlaw it altogether," said Don Duncan, California Director with Americans for Safe Access, the country's leading medical marijuana advocacy group.
Duncan said the vote will harm tens of thousands of patients.
At least 178 California cities from Calistoga to Camarillo and 20 counties already have banned retail pot shops, according to the medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access.
Reflecting the murky language of the state's medical marijuana laws, a handful of dispensaries have successfully challenged local prohibitions in court, along with laws that merely sought to regulate dispensaries.
Most recently, an appeals court in Southern California struck down Los Angeles County's 2-year-old ban on dispensaries, ruling that state law allows cooperatives and collectives to grow, store and distribute pot.
But in a separate case, an appeals court said federal law pre-empts local municipalities from allowing pot clinics.
The vote came a day after a priest, drug counselors and others decried crime and other social problems they say surround neighborhood marijuana dispensaries. Among those who spoke was a woman who complained about having to push her baby's stroller through clouds of marijuana smoke near dispensaries in her East Hollywood neighborhood.
Daniel Sosa, a medical marijuana advocate, told council members it's fruitless to approve a ban that won't have any merit, and will likely lead to more lawsuits.
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"If you can't enforce it, why are you going to pass something?" Sosa asked the council.
Copyright 2012 Associated Press