03/28/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Tough Medical Marijuana Rules Are Poised to Backfire

As politicians fumble for a way to clamp down on, snuff out or otherwise curtail the use of medical marijuana, the one thing that they have failed to consider is that the tougher the regulations they may pass, the more likely they are to spectacularly backfire. As a breed, politicians seem genetically incapable of spotting trends, and the trend in medical marijuana goes far beyond how many dispensaries the market can bear. The ball is slowly rolling toward full legalization, and every scheme to limit access to medical marijuana only adds to the momentum. It might sound counterintuitive, but there is no one more motivated than a dope smoker when it comes to matters concerning cannabis, especially one with an entrepreneurial wind at her back. Politicians' knee-jerk reaction to a tidal change in constituents' attitudes toward marijuana has set fire to an entire category of people who are usually content to sit on the sofa watching Man vs. Wild reruns.

In Los Angeles, for example, there were four dispensaries in 2005. The moment the City Council started talking about restricting such businesses, the number climbed quickly to nearly 200, and when a ban on new dispensaries was announced in 2007, pot proponents lined up to file paperwork to beat the deadline. Today, there are between 800 and 1,000 dispensaries in LA, including applications for 58 businesses on one street. Backfire.

As it did elsewhere, the same thing happened in Fort Collins. There were three or four dispensaries late last year before the City Council decided to put a three-month halt on new ones so they could discuss how and if they should try to prevent their wild proliferation. The weeks before the moratorium went into effect saw an avalanche of sales tax licenses so new dispensaries could wildly proliferate before the door slammed shut. There are now more than 100 dispensaries in Fort Collins that are either open for business or preparing to open. Backfire.

Back in LA, the City Council passed a new ordinance today that limits the total number of pot clinics to about 150, forcing hundreds to go out of business. Those allowed to remain open will be spread around the city based on a districting scheme and they would have to be 1,000 feet away from parks, schools, churches and other "sensitive areas." This could backfire in two ways: Owners could ignore the ordinance and dare the cash-strapped city to spend the resources shutting them down, or they could seek an injunction preventing the city from enforcing it. Either option would be an expensive and ultimately pointless wrangle. Even if the law were perfectly enforced, it would do nothing to reduce the amount of marijuana in a community like Venice, for example, where out of the 17 existing dispensaries only one would be allowed to remain. No matter what the commodity, when you artificially reduce the legal supply, costs go up and black markets flourish.

More significantly, the ordinance could backfire in the form of a landslide vote for legalization if a citizen-initiated measure is put on the California ballot in November, as expected. Clueless politicians restricting access to voter-approved medical marijuana would be a strong rallying cry to get out the vote.

Colorado would be wise to keep such things in mind as it grapples with its own hodgepodge of regulatory ideas. Tomorrow, a bill that would tighten the screws on doctors making medical marijuana recommendations will be heard in committee. This is the first of at least two bills that are expected to be debated at the capitol, and it's at least less onerous than the other, which may seek to cap the number of patients a dispensary could serve to five. That would effectively shut down all but the smallest dispensaries and, if passed, very likely provide the tipping point for our very own citizen-initiated legalization measure.

Victory for the cannabis crowd would be far from assured, but national polls have consistently shown overwhelming support for medical marijuana, and increasing support for full legalization. Many polls show a slim majority in favor of making pot legal across the board. By bullheadedly refusing to allow the industry to follow its free market evolutionary path, lawmakers are increasingly seen to be erecting barriers between patients and a drug that as many as 80 percent of respondents to a recent ABC poll believe should be legal. It may not be long before voters circumvent the lawmakers at the ballot box and remove all restrictions.