Lawyers for Los Angeles County recommended a “surge strategy’’ Tuesday to shut down medical marijuana dispensaries operating illegally in the face of a ban in effect in unincorporated areas.
The county’s legal team told the Board of Supervisors that they had closed 60 dispensaries between 2011-16 and another 31 after the board asked for a crackdown in March 2016.
Enforcement is pending against another 49 dispensaries and lawyers are prepping to force 26 more to close. That would account for all the marijuana retailers identified by the county to date, though new shops continue to pop up.
County counsel estimated that it would take four to six months to close the remaining 75 on the county’s hit list if more county lawyers were hired to team up with the District Attorney’s Office.
“County Counsel and the District Attorney recommend an aggressive, uniform and expeditious enforcement ‘surge strategy’ against illegal MMDs (medical marijuana dispensaries),” lead counsel Mary Wickham wrote in a letter to the board.
Though a county ban on dispensaries has been in place since 2011, enforcing a zero-tolerance policy has proven difficult.
Dispensaries shut down and then open up under different names, creating a game of “whack-a-mole” for enforcement agencies, said Lance Wong, head deputy of the district attorney’s Major Narcotics Division.
The lucrative nature of the business means that entrepreneurs fight hard to keep their dispensaries open, with some filing civil suits against the county. Wong said another problem is that some people mistakenly believe that dispensaries are legal everywhere.
In addition to bringing the hammer down on dispensaries, the county has banned cultivation and distribution of marijuana in unincorporated areas. That ordinance is set to expire in June, but county counsel said it would be rolled into a new regulation.
Landlords are also prohibited by county law from renting to dispensaries.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger said it was tough for landlords to turn down the premiums being offered by some would-be dispensary operators and stressed the importance of educating property owners.
Barger also highlighted public safety concerns that surround dispensaries that operate as all-cash businesses, reminding colleagues of an dispensary employee murdered in her district.
Supervisor Hilda Solis echoed that concern and also worried aloud about dispensaries near schools.
Many residents agreed. “This has to stop. We are overpopulated with these stores. There’s at
least 50 within a five-mile radius,” East Los Angeles resident Jeseus Huertas told the board. “We need some regulations.”
Supervisor Janice Hahn said she’d like to see more enforcement in her district, which stretches along the South Bay and then along the border with Orange County out to Diamond Bar.
“There’s a ban. They’re illegal. They ought to be shut down,” Hahn said.
Recent enforcement has focused on Solis’ First District, which runs from downtown Los Angeles east to Pomona and south to South Gate. Twenty-five of the 31 dispensaries shut down in the last year were in those neighborhoods.
The county crackdown comes as other jurisdictions seek to profit from the statewide legislation of recreational marijuana, approved by voters in November.
Recreational sales will not begin under the new law until January, but some residents and business owners urged the county to focus on licensing and regulating dispensaries rather than banning them.
“If the goal is to maximize the transition from the illicit market to the regulated market, then we should try and figure out how to transition some of these operators,” said Cat Packer, California policy coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance. “We need a surge of economic opportunities for communities.”
Under the state law, local jurisdictions can only ban commercial activities and outdoor cultivation, something county lawyers are preparing to do.
“Why continue to wage a battle that you obviously are losing?,” resident David Green asked the board. “Almost 60 percent of the voters thought recreational use was fine.”
Other advocates stressed the drug’s medicinal value.
“Cannabis is an exit drug (for me),” said Alexis D’Angelo of Women Grow Los Angeles. D’Angelo called the drug life-saving, telling the board she was able to wean herself off six pharmaceutical drugs and stay away from alcohol by substituting marijuana.
The report by county counsel required no vote by the board and no action was taken.
The county has set up an anonymous tip line, residents can call (213) 974-6453 to report dispensaries.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to extend a ban on the cultivation, manufacture, processing, testing, transportation and retail sale of medical and non-medical marijuana in unincorporated areas until a comprehensive regulatory framework can be put in place.
The board also asked the county’s lawyers to work with the district attorney to shut down 70 dispensaries illegally operating in unincorporated areas.
The moves come as the state and various municipalities struggle with the nitty-gritty details of legalizing a long illegal drug.
The state has until Jan. 1 to implement Proposition 64 and begin issuing licenses to sell recreational marijuana, but Supervisor Sheila Kuehl expressed doubts.
“I don’t know whether the state’s really going to get it together by Jan. 1,” Kuehl told her colleagues. “Everybody’s saying no.”
Meanwhile, the county is trying to figure out just how to deal with challenges posed by marijuana businesses.
The fact that marijuana sales are conducted using cash makes dispensaries a target for potentially violent robberies, but also raises odder issues.
Tax collectors worry about handling “suitcases full of cash,” said Joe Nicchitta of the CEO’s Office of Marijuana Management.
Supervisors Hilda Solis and Mark Ridley-Thomas both raised concerns about concentrations of dispensaries in their districts.
“The constituents that I represent are not exactly eager to have these businesses and manufacturing sites next to their homes and schools and parks,” Ridley-Thomas said, telling his colleagues that he wanted to ensure that low-income communities were “not left alone to shoulder the burdens of marijuana legalization.”
Solis called for the enforcement effort.
“The First District has over 40 of these dispensaries,” Solis said. “While there’s a ban, they’re there.”
The vote in favor of enforcement while the ban is in place was unanimous, but Kuehl was more optimistic that legalization would ultimately shut down a black market in cannabis.
“Normalizing it and strictly regulating it is more in our interest,” Kuehl said, envisioning a day when marijuana edibles are widely on offer in restaurants. “It’ll be a list, like the wine list.”
The county has the option under state law to permanently ban cannabis, but the board consensus seemed to be that thoughtful regulation would be best.
Kuehl and Supervisor Janice Hahn proposed a comprehensive regulatory framework, with Kuehl emphasizing the potential to pick up best practices from Oregon, Washington and Colorado, where the drug is already legal.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who called for extension of the ban, said she was particularly worried about young people using marijuana.
“I think we all know, and I would argue, this is a gateway drug,” Barger said. “If we do not properly educate, especially our youth, we are going to be creating a whole different set of problems.”
But even Barger agreed, “We cannot ban it, the voters have spoken.”
Community outreach — including educational campaigns for consumers, children and parents — is planned as part of what is expected to be a yearlong process of creating regulations across more than a dozen county departments.
A report back on enforcement is expected in 30 days and regulatory updates will be provided quarterly.
Montebello residents may soon have to consider whether they want to allow medical marijuana dispensaries in their city — and if revenue from taxing “pot” sales is a good reason to let them open.
A petition is being circulated to place a measure on the ballot that if approved would change the city’s municipal code to allow Montebello to tax and regulate medical marijuana dispensaries in the city.
To qualify for the Nov. 3, 2015 ballot, the measure’s backers must get signatures from ten percent of the Montebello’s registered voters, roughly 3,500 residents, by Aug. 7.
Haik Mike Aslanian, the consultant behind the petition gathering campaign who says he grew up in the area, estimates taxing medical marijuana sold in Montebello would generate $300,000 to $1 million annually for the city.
“We are being extremely conservative with those numbers,” he told EGP.
If approved, Montebello would be the only city east of Los Angeles allowing medical marijuana dispensaries to operate.
In 1996, California voters approved Prop 215, 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.
What the measures did not do was detail specific guidelines for where dispensaries can be located or how local municipalities can regulate their operation.
That led to confusion and a great deal of after-the-fact planning and regulation in some cities where medical marijuana dispensaries started springing up in neighborhoods in large numbers.
One of those cities is Los Angeles where as many as 1,000-1,200 “pot shops” are estimated to have opened for business, prompting one local church official to label the city the “Wild West” of the medical marijuana frontier.
In 2013, L.A. voters passed Proposition D that makes all medical marijuana dispensaries in the city illegal except for the 100 or so that had previously registered with the city: it also sets operating guidelines.
Aslanian says the measure his group is backing has taken those issues into consideration and would avoid the chaos experienced in other cities by having regulations in place before the medical marijuana dispensaries are allowed to open.
Montebello’s measure would amend the city’s Municipal Code to permit the establishment and operation of up to four medical marijuana collectives. The facilities would be allowed to cultivate marijuana for medical purposes and distribute to its members.
Aslanian explained they decided to go the ballot measure route to bypass city council members not likely to put forth their own marijuana dispensary measure.
“It’s a hot topic,” he said. “They’re politicians and don’t want to lose votes,” he speculated.
According to the petition, the collectives would be subject to an application process, operating restrictions and oversight. The dispensaries would also be prohibited from opening in residential zones, being within 1,500 feet of a high school or within 1,000 feet of public parks or any kindergarten, elementary or intermediate school, for the most part limiting the dispensaries to the city’s industrial areas.
A “well regulated industry with clear operational standards, expectations and limits, will reduce the dangers presented by illegal drug dealing and potential unsafe medical products,” states the petition.
Aslanian said they decided to limit the number of dispensaries to four — the equivalent of one dispensary for every 15,000 residents— because “we don’t want it to be [over] saturated.”
He claims legalizing dispensaries would reduce drug-related crime in Montebello because patients would not have to resort to “back alleys” to score their medication.
A provision for a Medical Marijuana Task Force, consisting of the city’s police chief, two members of the collective and residents appointed by the city council, has been included in the initiative. The task force would be tasked with reviewing and approving applications, enforcement, hearings, resolving disciplinary issues and addressing concerns raised by the public.
“They would be able to revoke the license of a dispensary if they violate the measure,” Aslanian explained.
According to Aslanian, an in-house survey found that 60 percent of Montebello residents would vote to approve the measure. He says he has family members who need access to the marijuana to help them with their medical issues and that’s one of the reasons he’s joined advocates supporting the measure.
But Aslanian is no stranger to the workings of medical marijuana dispensaries; he operated one in Long Beach until the city banned the facilities in 2012.
He acknowledges that if the measure passes he will apply to operate one of the four dispensaries.
“A lot of people are uneducated on the industry,” he said. “I know a lot of people use marijuana for recreational purposes, but we can’t control that.”
However, he says, the industry has changed a lot over the last two years. People and cities want more control and transparency.