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Better Regulation of Marijuana Shops Needed, Says Boyle Heights Group

Boyle Heights became ground zero this week in the local battle to regulate and bring medical marijuana dispensaries under control.

It appeared to be the reason behind a special visit to Boyle Heights Monday by consultant Michael Colbruno, a partner at the Milo Group of California, Inc., and the follow up to his meeting with Assembly Speaker John Pérez regarding legislation on cannabis regulation in the state.

Members of Resurrection Church Neighborhood Watch gave Michael Colbruno, pictured right, a tour of medical marijuana dispensaries in Boyle Heights. (Courtesy of Resurrection Church  Neighborhood Watch) [1]

Members of Resurrection Church Neighborhood Watch gave Michael Colbruno, pictured right, a tour of medical marijuana dispensaries in Boyle Heights. (Courtesy of Resurrection Church Neighborhood Watch)

“He [Perez] stated that I had to come witness the problems in L.A. and particularly in Boyle Heights,” Colbruno, an advocate for marijuana dispensaries, told EGP.

According to Pérez’s spokesperson John Vigna, the visit was intended to be educational and to show Colbruno the unintended consequences of legislation that allows dispensaries to operate, and the resulting issues residents have to live with day in and day out when they are located in their neighborhoods.

Pérez is not currently working on any particular legislation to regulate medical marijuana, and a bill, AB 473, by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, chair of the public safety committee, is not moving forward this year, according to Vigna.

AB 473 proposes to create a division within Alcoholic Beverages Control to regulate the production, transportation and sales of medical marijuana, according to Ammiano’s webpage.

On Monday afternoon, Msgr. John Moretta of Resurrection Church and Boyle Heights resident Sal Martinez, who also serves on the LA County Probation Commission, and members of the Resurrection Neighborhood Watch program led Colbruno on a tour of the medical marijuana dispensaries in the Boyle Heights area.

Of the 8 dispensaries stopped at, according to Martinez, only one had a security armed, in direct violation of rules set by the city of Los Angeles in 2010 pertaining to security at the dispensaries, including requirements for security guards, closed-circuit cameras, as well as those regarding location restrictions.

Some of the unpleasant, and possibly criminal, conditions Colburn and others found on Monday included chairs lined up in alleys behind dispensaries that served as patient waiting areas, a small shopping plaza that reeked of the of the smell of marijuana coming from one pot shop. Two men who appeared to be underage were observed entering one of the marijuana facilities on Indiana Street.

Following the tour, Colbruno briefly attended the neighborhood watch meeting where he had a chance to hear directly from residents, as well as speak on what has been effective in other parts of the state.

Colbruno, who represents two dispensaries in the San Francisco Bay Area, said he was warned by Pérez that the dispensaries here are “out of control” and upsetting to local residents.

“We visited eight dispensaries and after the first two I could see that the problem was unlicensed, unregulated and un-enforced dispensaries. We found them next to schools and youth organizations, something that you would never see in the Bay Area. We also saw numerous dispensaries clustered together,” said Colbruno, who had to leave the meeting before the discussion really got underway.

Members of the Resurrection Church Neighborhood Watch, a volunteer group that keeps an eye out for crime in one part of Boyle Heights, for the most part seems opposed to the use of marijuana for medical purposes altogether, seeing it instead as an immoral business profiting at the expense of the area’s youth.

Teresa Marquez, a grandmother and local activist, at the Neighbhorhood Watch meeting made light of the use of marijuana as medicine. She said she has seen 10 different pain specialists and not one has ever offered her a prescription for pot.

Neighborhood Watch member Frank Villalobos, lead architect of Barrio Planners, pointed out that beside being a nuisance to residential areas, the pot shops also pose a planning and land use problem. He said there are currently no parking requirements for the dispensaries, yet traditional medical facilities are required to have a minimum of 4 parking spaces for every 1,000 square-feet of space they operate.

“The one [dispensary] across from Roosevelt [High School] doesn’t have any parking… ‘M&M store’ sounds like a candy store,” Villalobos said. He said in some medical marijuana dispensary operators are offering to pay rent above the commercial market-rate to be able to open up.

Moretta said some commercial property landlords seem to favor medical marijuana tenants. He cited an example of a shopping center on the 1300 block of South Soto Street where some of the shop owners signed a petition asking the property owner to evict the marijuana dispensary because the odor from the shop was hurting their businesses. The owner refused, and told them they could move if they didn’t like it.

While the group didn’t seem to narrow down a message for a letter Moretta said he wants to write to Pérez, they all seemed concerned that the dispensaries seem to be proliferating without anyone to stop or regulate them, and it’s taking a toll on the community.

One dispensary is right behind the Variety Boys & Girls Club, Moretta said. Another is near Stevenson Middle School, Martinez added.

“Its like the Wild West—it’s unacceptable,” Moretta told EGP following the meeting.

Hollenbeck Senior Lead Officer Oscar Casini speculated that a lot of the pot shops were setting up shop in the area hoping to get grandfathered-in before the laws change.

Casini, who said he worked a while back with LAPD’s Vice Division, said the number of medical marijuana dispensaries in Hollenbeck is almost equal to the number of liquor licenses in the division.

EGP was unable to verify the claim.

The problem, which has taken root in other neighborhoods as well as Boyle Heights, has been the failure of city officials to take control of how it will regulate the facilities.

According to Colburn, the difference between cannabis dispensaries in Oakland and Boyle Heights is “truly night and day.”

“Oakland got out in front of the issue with zoning amendments, taxations and fees, regulation, limiting the number of licensed dispensaries to four, limiting patients to eight ounces and six mature and twelve immature plants and restricting on-site consumption,” he said. “The system works so well that it has the support of city and county officials, neighbors and businesses. We saw a dramatic decrease in the number of drug dealers on the street once the dispensaries opened. They are also clean and fit in beautifully with their surrounding areas.”

He said L.A. has allowed the unregulated and unlicensed dispensaries to run rampant and that is hurting the legal and licensed operators and patients who truly need their medicine.

“They need to use the power of zoning laws, the city attorney, the Board of Equalization, the D.A. and the U.S. Attorney in cracking down on illegal, unlicensed dispensaries,” he said.

In 1996, California voters approved Prop 215, known as the Compassionate Use Act, which gave cancer, AIDS and other chronically ill patients the right to grow or possess marijuana for medical purposes. Senate Bill 420 was signed into law in 2003 and clarified the compassionate Use Act, establishing the medical marijuana program.

The city of Los Angeles has attempted to regulate and even ban medical marijuana dispensaries. Last year, Councilman Jose Huizar, who lives in and represents Boyle Heights, tried to pass a ban on all new medical marijuana dispensaries in the city. The “gentle ban” only lasted about three months before it was overturned by the city council.

Earlier this year, Angelenos approved Proposition D that is supposed to regulate and tax medical marijuana dispensaries and limit the number of these businesses to 135, the number that had registered for licenses prior to suspension of new dispensaries in 2007. Prop D also stipulated that in residences, where there were three or fewer patients and/or caregivers, cultivation of the product for patients’ personal use is permissible. A business tax of $60 for each $1,000 gross receipts was also included in the proposition.

In May, the State Supreme Court upheld individual cities’ right to ban dispensaries, and federal law continues unchanged, classifying marijuana as an illegal substance.

In June, the city attorney sent 1,716 letters to landlords and owners of “medical marijuana businesses” ordering them to cease operations.

On Sept. 10, the Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the conflict between state and federal marijuana laws. According to NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), a marijuana law reform advocacy lobbyist group, the hearing comes following the approval of the medical use of marijuana by 20 states, and two states legalizing it for recreational use.

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