As the debate over the future of Los Angeles' medical marijuana dispensaries rages on, a new study has found there are far fewer pot shops in LA than previously estimated by the city.
The UCLA study comes after the City Council approved a hotly debated ban on dispensaries, saying they had grown out of control. The ban has prompted advocates to sue and gather signatures to ask voters to overturn that measure.
The research, announced by UCLA this week, found 472 medical marijuana dispensaries operating in Los Angeles. The number is less than half of the amount of businesses that were sent notifications of the city's pot-shop ban last month.
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Researchers went to 875 addresses compiled from a variety of city sources, and found more than 40 percent of the locations were not operating as dispensaries. Some had been shut down; others had never opened, the study said.
The study was conducted by Bridget Freisthler, an associate professor of social welfare at UCLA's Luskin School of Public Affairs. She said the number of dispensaries her team found is roughly equal to the number of bars in Los Angeles.
"I don't think the City Council or the city have the time or resources to verify" the number of pot shops, Freisthler said.
City Councilman Jose Huizar, who authored the city's ban, said the research didn't change his perception of pot shops, which he has associated with crime and neighborhood complaints.
"The dispensaries are still problematic," Huizar said. "No matter what we do, no matter what types of regulation we try to put in place to try to control the impacts on local neighborhoods, we get sued and they try to circumvent our rules. And that tells me: Are these proponents really trying to provide access to patients who truly need it, or are they about profit?"
On Thursday, day after the UCLA study was publicized by university, the city announced it would not enforce Huizar's ban pending certification of more than 50,000 signatures in favor of a ballot measure to overturn the ordinance.
The City Attorney's Office said (PDF) the ordinances "may or may not remain suspended" after signatures are verified, depending on whether enough voters supported the referendum to qualify it for the March ballot.
The signature-gathering campaign was launched in July, after the City Council unanimously voted to institute a "gentle ban" on marijuana dispensaries that would allow patient collectives to continue to cultivate the herb but would order pot shops closed.
At the same time, the medical marijuana group Patient Care Alliance, Los Angeles sued the city over the ban.
In mid-August, the city said it sent out letters to 1,774 business owners warning them the ordinance would go into effect this Thursday. The letters were also sent to 1,046 locations where the city believed marijuana dispensaries were operating.
During City Council discussion of the proposed ordinance, municipal officials said 762 pot shops were registered with the city. But a spokesman for the City Attorney's Office said last month that well more than that were thought to be in business.
The UCLA study -- which plotted pot-shop locations on a map, shown below -- disputes that.
A Patient Care Alliance spokeswoman on Thursday said the study makes a point contrary to that made by pot-shop ban supporters.
"I think that this is actually taking a step forward in helping the residents of the city of Los Angeles to understand the very limited patient access that's available in the medical marijuana community," said Tiffany Wright of PCA-LA.