The Battle for Los Angeles

The LA City council sics the DEA on pot clubs, as operators counter-attack the new dispensary ban.

The region that gave the world Dr. Dre’s The Chronic is moving to get tough on said chronic, but whether the moves are just more Drug War theater remains unclear. On Wednesday, August 29, the Los Angeles City Council will hear a motion to divert city funds to the prosecution of medical marijuana collective operators. Presented by Councilman Ed P. Reyes, the motion to pay for more weed prosecutions follows an unprecedented city council motion, approved on August 22, instructing the Los Angeles Police Department to “work with the Federal government, the Drug Enforcement Agency [sic], and the District Attorney to create a citywide enforcement strategy to deal with medical marijuana collectives.”

Just what does the ominous phrase “to deal with” mean? Well, in July, the city voted to ban all medical marijuana collectives operating in retail storefronts. Scheduled to take effect by September 6, the pot-shop ban could affect an estimated 750 stores in the city of 3.8 million people. But not so fast.

On August 22, attorneys for Patient Care Alliance Los Angeles sued the city over the ban, asking for an immediate injunction, and saying that the ban violated the California constitution and collective operators’ due process rights. Activists in Los Angeles have also collected about 27,000 signatures in a petition to put the pot-shop ban up for a public vote, said a large LA dispensary manager who we’ll call “Jack,” because he requested we not use his name or the name of his collective due to the enforcement actions. Referendum organizers are betting that Los Angelenos will strike down the ban at the ballot box, Jack said.

The ban doesn’t pass the smell test with many pot shop owners, either, Jack said. History shows the city has proved incompetent in its attempts to both regulate its clubs and close them all down. The US Drug Enforcement Administration ordered all clubs closed in 2004, and then they came back.

Los Angeles tried to regulate its clubs once in 2010, passing an ordinance limiting dispensary permits to one hundred businesses. Numerous lawsuits, however, were filed against the ordinance, and a state appellate court ruled that aspects of it were illegal.

Some LA shop owners have said publicly that they won’t close, pointing to voter-approved Prop 215 and California law SB 420 as legal cover for operating a collective in a retail space. “It’s not like we’re doing anything illegal,” Jack said. “It’s discriminatory.”

Operators presume the cash-strapped city also lacks the funds and the time to investigate, ticket, raid, jail, prosecute, and imprison every store owner, let alone the limitless supply of true believers and Green Rush wannabes who’ll step up to meet demand when their peers catch a case. “Mainly, everybody is just kind of waiting to see what happens,” Jack said. “A lot of people are calling [the city’s] bluff.”

Ordering police to strategize with DEA agents and beefing up ranks of prosecuting attorneys clearly signals that the city council is ready to double down on its ban. It sets up the biggest medical cannabis city in the world as a battleground over the issue of storefront dispensaries — just in time for the election. “It’s definitely an escalation of pressure and it’s really unfortunate,” wrote Don Duncan, a leader of Americans for Safe Access in Los Angeles, in an email.

“Both motions seem aimed at increasing the city’s capacity to enforce the ban,” Duncan said in a July interview. “Both motions also send a message to patients operating cooperatives and collectives that the city is gearing up to enforce the ban. The City Council may be reacting to media reports indicating that the ‘voluntary ban’ the LAPD said they anticipated is unlikely. Aggressive enforcement in L.A., which seems more likely now, sends a bad message to other jurisdictions.”

Angelenos clearly want city-permitted and -regulated dispensaries, Duncan said. Some unregulated clubs in the area break state as well as federal law, police investigations have found. Without any planning department oversight, the new businesses draw neighborhood nuisance complaints for traffic and loitering, and security can be too lax, leading to robberies. Moreover, “the city doesn’t think they’re getting any money — there’s so many that aren’t paying their taxes,” said LA operator Jack, who would prefer to see the city pursue tax enforcement against scofflaws.

Access to medical cannabis — which can treat nausea, pain, stress, and inflammation, and stimulate appetite — is likely to remain easy in the LA basin as the new legal tussle moves forward. Aside from bold storefront operators, fleets of quasi-clandestine delivery collectives still serve the area. The surrounding Los Angeles County has seen its collective ban struck down in court. Hundreds of medical marijuana options also exist in neighboring cities like West Hollywood and Venice Beach.

Could an LA ban be a boon to neighboring canna-business? Not necessarily. Duncan sits on the board of directors of a West Hollywood dispensary, and said neighboring clubs would struggle to cope with a flood of refugee patient demand. “We’re not prepared to absorb that,” Duncan wrote.

Seeds & Stems

Our pot book author panel and signing event, “Home Grown Author Night,” on July 21 was such a hit that we’re bringing it back. On Saturday, October 13, at Oaksterdam University in downtown Oakland, we will host “Home Grown Author Night #2,” this time featuring Doug Fine, author of the 2012 book Too High To Fail; Clint Werner, author of the 2011 title Marijuana: Gateway to Health; and Martin Lee, author of the 2012 book Smoke Signals; plus special guests and refreshments. Doors open at 5 p.m. Free to the public.


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