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ADRIAN HERRERA / Bull

It’s 10:30 p.m. and Irma Villa, 23, is finally wrapping up a long day at the office. A day filled with telephone conference calls, meetings, paperwork, and when she had a free minute, homework on her laptop.

Working a management position that demands about 45 hours a week in retail isn’t your eight to five, Monday to Friday, it’s a schedule that doesn’t lend itself to any consistency. And taking online classes with that already hectic schedule makes Villa’s day tired and stressful.

Villa is now in her living room at home, taking a minute to relax and calm down and hoping that tonight she will sleep well. “I’ve had many sleepless nights in the past, I feel that this medication has helped my problem.” Sleeping has become increasingly difficult for Villa because of her unsteady schedule. “Sometimes I work early mornings, in the day, or at nights, I have to try and sleep around my schedule,” she says , “and sometimes when I need to sleep, I can not fall sleep, I lay wide awake, even of I am tired.” According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services 60 million Americans suffer from insomnia.

There are many over-the-counter and prescription drugs, such as Ambien, that are on the market as a solution to insomnia, guaranteeing its user a night full of rest. Fear of all the side effects from prescription drugs made Irma turn elsewhere, to an alternative medication that has become increasingly popular in the Los Angeles area.

Villa reaches for her medication, tightly concealed in an orange translucent canister complete with a label giving information about the medication. She gently twists the top off, releasing a potent odor that rushes to the nose. She packs the medication into the bowl of her decorative glass bong that’s sitting on a circular glass table directly in front of her. With a shiny yellow lighter in her right hand, she sparks a flame and lights up her medication, creating smoke that shoots up into the glass chamber of the bong. Seconds later, she pulls the downstem out of the bong and inhales the smoke through her mouth.

Her medication of choice? Medicinal marijuana. With an array of names like OG Kush, Sour Diesel, Skywalker, and Purple Train Wreck, medicinal marijuana use has become increasingly popular as a medication to treat many illness symptoms, including insomnia. There are more than 200 medical marijuana dispensaries in operation today in the San Fernando Valley and driving through the valley they can be seen everywhere, from Van Nuys to Woodland Hills.

“The San Fernando Valley seems to be the epicenter of it all,” says Mark Stewart, who is an employee at Mendocino Meds Wellness Center, a compassionate collective located in Canoga Park. And according to CNBC marijuana is also California’s number one cash crop, worth 14 billion dollars to the state.

With the passing of Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, the Medical Marijuana Program (MPP) was established in the state of California for qualified patients. Patients like Villa have been able to benefit from this type of medication and have used it as an alternative to prescription pills that seem to have a never-ending list of side effects. Villa tried other medication before marijuana, including an over-the-counter medication, Tylenol Simple Sleep, but was not impressed with results. “It did make me sleep eight hours, but what the medication did is knock me out completely,” she added, “If I had to wake up say before eight hours it was very difficult and I did not like the feeling it gave me in the morning, I felt disoriented at times.”

Aware of all the potential side effects prescription pills may cause, Villa is extremely satisfied that she does not get similar side effects from marijuana. “Have you seen all the side effects that prescription pills may cause,” states Villa, “diarrhea, nausea, blood clots, I do not want to take something that can potential kill me, give me a stroke or something. Those side effects are not present in marijuana.”

“We have many patients that are on sleeping pills like Ambien and who are on painkillers like vicodin, or on other types of medication who are trying to get off those prescription drugs and this (marijuana) works for them,” says Lynn Pearlman, manager of Mendocino Meds Wellness Center. “There are other people who take it for other pains. We have cancer patients who use the marijuana for the nausea that is caused by the chemotherapy and glaucoma patients as well.”

In 2007, a moratorium was put in place by the Los Angeles City Council meaning that new dispensaries could not open. Although a state law, California cities and counties have some rights in proposing ordinances and regulating medical marijuana within their districts. Before the moratorium, however, there were 186 dispensaries and today there are more than 800 dispensaries open in Los Angeles County, many operating within Los Angeles city limits.

The city has yet to take action and has failed to fully enforce a law that has been in effect for two years. Los Angeles has struggled to write and pass an ordinance to control medicinal marijuana since the 2007 ruling and have let many dispensaries open up anyway. Many were able to open by requesting an exemption from the ban, and then opening without approval while their cases were pending.

“The permanent ordinance should be focused on securing access to medical marijuana to qualified patients, while protecting surrounding areas from potential negative impact. This would include: operational guidelines, proliferation and over-concentration, proximity of dispensaries to sensitive uses, and appropriate permitting and licensing,” said Councilman Dennis Zine, who represents Los Angeles’s third district. He is a former police officer who served 41 years with the Los Angeles Police Department. The ordinance to control medical marijuana has yet to be written by the City Council, however Zine added that, “Los Angeles is taking many steps forward to regulate dispensaries.”

While some will argue that they are not legitimate non-profit businesses, Pearlman disagrees. “We pay sales tax returns, we purchase office supplies, we pay our fair share of taxes, it is absolutely a business.” California law requires dispensaries to operate as non-profit collectives calling its marijuana sales a “donation” rather than a purchase. “We are normal people running a non-profit organization,” says Michael, who is one of the owners of Sunny Day Collective, located in Chatsworth, and preferred we use just his first name.

“There is no profiteering going on here.” Nonprofit status exempts dispensaries from many state and local taxes, including income taxes. But that might soon change.

In early October of this year both Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley and City Attorney Carmen Trutanich announced that all medical marijuana dispensaries in the county were operating illegally and that they would be prosecuted. This news didn’t scare Pearlman nor was it a surprise. “They have been saying that for awhile, but nothing has happened,” she added. Both Trutanich and Cooley agree that over-the-counter sales of medical marijuana are illegal and a large majority, if not all of the dispensaries in the county work in that way. However, both attorneys must work with local law enforcement to crack down on the dispensaries. At a time when the city, if not the whole state, is in a fiscal emergency, the manpower and the funds might not necessarily be available.

An LAPD officer who did not want to be named on record stated that “nothing yet” had been done in the department regarding Cooley’s and Trutanich’s recent actions. “We are currently working with the attorney’s office on that matter.”

The Los Angeles City Council is expected to vote on the measure in November after a Superior Court judge ruled on October 19 that the moratorium that was put in effect in 2007 on the dispensaries had illegally been extended. Sunny Day Collective was one of the ten collectives who sued the city in September. Their lawsuit stated that the City Council violated state laws when it increased the length of the moratorium into next year. “The city was acting unconstitutionally by shutting down collectives without an ordinance in place,” says Michael.

A measure was drafted by the City Attorney’s office that would prohibit the sale of medical marijuana, forcing hundreds of dispensaries to shut down. It would require all the dispensaries opened after the moratorium, including Sunny Day Collective and Mendocino Meds Wellness Center, to shut down, as well as the 186 that opened before the moratorium. However, shutting down all marijuana collectives might not be as easy as it sounds. The problem with the measure is it that even if the city attempts to ban it by a City Council vote they can expect many legal battles in court, which would possibly overturn it as medical marijuana is legal in the state of California.

As with the moratorium issue, the judge sided with the medical marijuana collectives. “We would like to see these businesses treated like adult businesses and those that sell alcohol. Both of these have very specific requirements for where they can be located and what can be done,” says JJ Popowich, president of the Winnetka Neighborhood Council.

The City Council is currently working on an ordinance that would regulate collectives instead of just shutting them down, as there are no regulations in place for collectives currently. The ordinance would include provisions such as: ensuring marijuana is not sold for profit, regulating the number of collectives, enforcing zoning laws that would prohibit them from opening in certain locations, such as 1,000 feet from schools, child facilities and other collectives.

More controversial provisions include keeping collectives from only having no more than 5 pounds of dried marijuana or 100 plants at any given time, as well as regulating business hours from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. only, as many collectives are open as late as your favorite fast food joint. “We will comply with whatever the city decides,” says Michael.

When the City Council makes their final decision on this matter, or whoever ends up making the decision, it will cause headlines, both negative and positive. But one thing is certain – that some Angelenos don’t have a problem with marijuana. “Its getting pretty mainstream. You have to remember, that people that are older now, say 60, they grew up in the 60s. This is not out of the norm for them,” says Pearlman. “Even people that don’t smoke, not many frown at it. It’s a personal choice.”

Villa is pleased that this type of program is available in California and like many others, including Councilman Zine, supports its use for medical reasons. “It works great, I have no complaints. The marijuana puts me to sleep, I wake up in the morning and feel fine, not how I did when I tried other medication.”

When asked if Mendocino Meds Wellness Center had any problems with local police, Pearlman responded, “No, they even asked me if I wanted to advertise in their magazine.”

Irma Villa smokes medical marijuana in an effort to curb her insomnia. (Jared Iorio)

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