Hermon Stops ‘Pot Shop,’ Other Neighborhoods Not as Lucky
By Jacqueline García, EGP Staff Writer
When Los Angeles voters in May 2013 approved a proposition to limit the number of medical marijuana dispensaries allowed to legally operate in the city to 135, most assumed that meant no new dispensaries would be allowed to open.
Proposition D and two similar measures on the same ballot were supposed to bring order and regulation to to the out of control proliferation of such facilities in the city, at the time estimated at 700 to 800.
But to the surprise and frustration of many residents, new so-called medical marijuana dispensaries continue to open in their neighborhoods, without warning or little enforcement of hours of operation and other regulations.
Residents in El Sereno, Boyle Heights and Highland Park have told EGP that they don’t find out about new dispensaries until the open sign goes up.
But last week in the Northeast Los Angeles neighborhood of Hermon, something rare occurred: vocal residents rallied to stop a dispensary from opening and succeeded.
When residents got wind that Monterey Care Collective owner Gor Mikhitar planned to open a facility in their neighborhood, they quickly contacted their District 14 councilman, Jose Huizar, whose office helped organize a community meeting where representatives of the city attorney, State Board of Equalization, CD-14 staff and LAPD’s Hollenbeck Division spoke. In another rarity, Mikhitar had agreed to attend and to listen to the concerns of the community and abide by the majority opinion.
Speaker after speaker said the proposed “pot shop” was too close to a school and would attract a bad element.
“I’m fine with medical marijuana,” Hermon resident Judy Shane told EGP. “But it is not like the area is hurting for pot shops, it is not an [unmet] essential service,” she said, referencing California Herbal Remedies in El Sereno and Medical Caregivers Collective in Eagle Rock.
“Marijuana should be treated as medicine” and distributed through a pharmacy said Hermon resident Joe Riser while displaying a bag full of empty marijuana containers he found thrown on local streets. They look like prescription bottles, but he points out they have no pharmacy or dosing information or a prescription number.
Huizar spokesman Rick Coca told EGP it’s a problem the councilman has been vocal about for a long time and that they continue to work closely with police and City Attorney Mike Feuer’s office, which oversees enforcement.
Prop D prohibits the operation or establishment of medical marijuana businesses “including renting to, working for … such businesses.” It also limits such facilities to the 135 operators who registered with the City Clerk under the city’s 2007 Interim Control Ordinance, 2010 Medical Marijuana Ordinance (as amended in 2011), and Measure M, the taxation of medical marijuana in 2011 or 2012. They must also comply with all other operating and location restrictions.
The city attorney is currently pursuing legal action against more than 70 marijuana dispensary operators it believes are illegal.
Nonetheless, confusion over who can operate a marijuana dispensary and where it can be located persists, allowing many new operators to fly under the radar.
Mikhitar told Hermon residents last week he will not open where he’s not welcome, but expressed frustration over the permitting process. He said he thought he was operating within the law.
According to Mikhitar, his attorney and accountants filed for a collective when they realized people were still submitting applications after Prop D passed. “It makes no sense to me,” he said. “[They] accept applications to allow you tax certification and allow you to get the resale license for medical marijuana and that’s what confuses people.”
“Why did you let me have the permit if I can’t run the business” he challenged the Board of Equalization representative, who responded the BOE’s only obligation is to collect taxes, not determine if it’s a legal business before adding that the application clearly states a permit does not give a business permission to operate outside the law.
But the Hermon residents’ victory is in large part due to their ability to take action before the facility actually opened.
A police investigation and review by the city attorney must usually take place before an illegally operating dispensary can be shut down.
How many dispensaries are operating illegally appears to be hard to get a handle on, since many operators claim to be authorized and that the approved list of operators is incomplete. Under Prop D, the list is intended to immunize legal dispensaries from prosecution.
Last December the Club 58 medical marijuana dispensary opened on Figueroa Street in Highland Park, a couple blocks east of the First Council District office of Councilman Gil Cedillo.
It’s name cannot be found on the list of approved dispensaries on the city attorney’s website, and it’s operator has not responded to EGP’s numerous calls.
It is next door to the NCCC Women’s Health Clinic and an insurance office; a bus stop is almost directly in front of its door. Its business card says it is open from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m., even though the law says dispensaries can only open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Employees of the clinic, who asked to be unnamed, told EGP they don’t like the “smell or people” that go to the dispensary. They said the smell of marijuana is strongest along the wall the two facilities share.
Cedillo spokesperson Fredy Cejas told EGP via email that the council office was “ not aware of Club 58 opening.” He could not say if it is one of the 135 permitted dispensaries.
“There is no way to track when dispensaries open,” Ceja told EGP. “Illegal dispensaries are usually observed by staff observation or driven by community complaints.” He said information about a questionable facility “is referred to LAPD to open an investigation. If the dispensary is illegal they refer the case to the City Attorney’s office for prosecution.”
Hermon is part of LAPD Senior Lead Officer John Pedroza’s jurisdiction. He said LAPD officers visit suspicious dispensaries and if they see something wrong they follow up. “Distribution is still against federal law but state laws don’t know what to do,” said Pedroza.
The New Life Wellness Center in El Sereno opened in December and is being investigated by police. Residents complained to Huizar’s office that the dispensary is located next to a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center and less than 400 feet from a library and an early childhood Head Start program.
“There are a lot of kids passing up and down around the area all the time,” Pastor Ben Garcia from the Victory Outreach Church in El Sereno told EGP.
Garcia said the owners, “some young Armenians,” told them the dispensary has all the appropriate permits.
EGP’s calls to the New Life Wellness Center were not returned.
“I don’t understand why they chose this specific location, this is our main street,” said Garcia. “It’s a dangerous place to put it because our community struggles a lot with drugs and alcohol, so why put more advertising for kids to get wrapped up with these kind of stuff, “ the pastor said.
Steve Morales, LAPD’s Senior Lead Officer for El Sereno, said it looks like the dispensary “is illegal.” He said detectives have already visited the dispensary three times. “Detectives [are doing] an investigation and will take it to the city attorney’s office,” Morales told EGP.
The laws are the same for all operating dispensaries, said Terry P. Kaufmann Macias, an assistant city attorney during the meeting in Hermon.
They should be located “beyond the 600 ft radius from a public park, public library, religious institution, child care facility, youth center, alcohol facility, drug abuse rehab center or any other medical marijuana business,” she said.
People who violate the law could face penalties including “on the civil side, prohibiting from operating and a fine of $2500 per day and on the criminal side a misdemeanor and up to $1,000 penalty,” Kaufmann Macias said.
The property owners who lease them space can also be prosecuted, she said.
EGP Managing Editor Gloria Alvarez contributed to this story.Print This Post
February 13, 2014 Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.