LOS ANGELES — In Oakland, California, the nation's largest dispensary of medical marijuana, Harborside Health Center, dispenses prepackaged marijuana and potted marijuana plants to a steady stream of users. Each has a doctor's recommendation for marijuana use and belongs to the members-only cooperative.
Medical marijuana has been legal in California since 1996 under state law, but the drug remains illegal under U.S. federal law.
The marijuana dispensary, called the largest pot shop on the planet, pays millions of dollars each year in state and local taxes and has the backing of city officials. It also has paid millions in legal fees to fight efforts by federal officials to close it down. But co-founder Steve DeAngelo said the move has started toward nationwide legalization of marijuana.
“The real question is, how is it going to be legalized? What is this new industry going to look like? How are we going to regulate it?” he asked.
In Los Angeles, marijuana dispensaries have proliferated, and even supporters say things are out of control. A simple headache or insomnia can get a doctor's recommendation for medical marijuana, and the city has 1,000 or more unregulated dispensaries.
Los Angeles city council member Bill Rosendahl credits marijuana with helping him cope with debilitating cancer.
He backs a proposal called Proposition D, one of three competing measures on the local election ballot in May. He said it would reduce Los Angeles dispensaries to 135, closing hundreds of others and imposing needed regulations on an industry that has helped him.
“I feel strong. I feel I have got a long life ahead of me, and I want to thank medicinal marijuana for making it happen,” said Rosendahl.
Polls show that 70 percent of Californians support medical marijuana. A narrow majority supports full legalization, which is now in place in Washington State and Colorado, but not in California. It is all illegal under federal law.
Today's marijuana is potent, with more of the psychoactive agent THC, said psychologist Steve Freng, who works in Seattle with treatment programs for the federal government.
“Marijuana these days is not the marijuana that was out there when I was in high school and college. That was essentially Mexican ditch weed that, if you were lucky, was a 3 to 5 percent THC type of marijuana," he said.
Some of today's marijuana is 15 to 20 percent THC, and as with alcohol, there are problems with abuse and underage users.
Federal authorities continue to crack down on some dispensaries. Four were raided recently in Los Angeles. Marijuana fetches higher prices in states where it is illegal, and critics say the lack of regulation in Los Angeles has led to illegal shipments to other states from some dispensaries.
The debate among Californians is no longer about prohibition, though, said marijuana dispensary founder DeAngelo. He sees marijuana as a burgeoning industry, and has set up an investment network called Arcview Group to help finance it.
“It is no longer a question of whether or not cannabis is going to be legalized. It is not even a question of when, because we are in that moment right now,” he said.
DeAngelo said it is a question of how it will be legalized. The country is waiting to see how federal officials respond to that question.