Los Angeles politicians have struggled for more than five years to regulate medical marijuana, trying to balance the needs of the sick against neighborhood concerns that pot shops attract crime.
Voters will head to the polls Tuesday to decide how Los Angeles should handle its high with three competing measures that seek to either limit the number of dispensaries or allow new ones to open and join an estimated several hundred others that currently operate.
Election Day in the nation's second-largest city comes just two weeks after a pivotal state Supreme Court decision gave cities and counties the authority to ban pot shops. More than 200 local municipalities have bans, and some cities that were awaiting guidance from the state's highest court have taken immediate action this month and begun shuttering clinics.
While some cities have been able to manage pot collectives, Los Angeles fumbled with the issue and dispensaries cropped up across the city as a result. Councilman Ed Reyes said Los Angeles has run into trouble where other cities such as Oakland haven't because of the sheer size of LA and a movement that is more organized and litigious.
"The pie is so big here, so thick and rich, that we have many people making a run at it," Reyes said. "Regardless of which measure you support, the city is going to have to focus on enforcement. I think as long as we don't have enforcement, it's just letters on paper."
City councilors passed an ordinance in 2010 to cut the number of shops from roughly 1,000 to 70. But numerous lawsuits were filed against the city by dispensaries and the ordinance was allowed to expire last year, leading to another surge of pot shops.
Last summer, the city approved a ban, but two months later repealed it after enough signatures were gathered to get the measures on the ballot.
Proposition D would cap the number of collectives that opened prior to 2007 — about 135 — and raise taxes slightly; Proposition E also would do the same but raise no new taxes; Proposition F wouldn't limit the number of pot shops but put stringent controls such as audits and background checks on employees. It also raises taxes.
The proposition with the most votes wins, but only if it collects a majority. If none of the measures receives more than 50 percent, the issue could bounce back to the City Council.
Proposition E is essentially dead on arrival because its supporters are now backing Proposition D, which has been endorsed by several council members. Proposition D backers said the initiative meets the criteria of neighbors and the medical marijuana industry by limiting the number of clinics.
"There's been absolutely no control, and that's what has hurt the city," said Brennan Thicke, who runs a pot clinic called the Venice Beach Care Center. "At this point, voters need to finally decide this issue. There's been an overwhelming belief in this city that medical marijuana should not go away."
Those who support Proposition F say the medical marijuana industry should be an open market, and the measure does more to regulate the industry than its counterpart. They also note that if some of the 135 clinics under Proposition D later close, they won't be replaced.
"There are bad apples in both groups," said attorney David Welch, who has represented dispensaries in various lawsuits. "The idea that the (older) collectives are angels and everyone else are the devils is just plain wrong. They don't want competition, and they want to control the supply and demand."
Regardless of the election's outcome, dispensary owners still are under the specter of the federal government, which maintains marijuana is illegal and has raided clinics, prosecuted owners and filed lawsuits against landlords.