Fear and loathing in Eagle Rock

April 14, 2010

Jake Armstrong, Pasadena Weekly

They had all the momentum; riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave, so to speak. But in a little less than two months, dispensary operators in Eagle Rock, where the medical marijuana trade has reached a high-water mark, may see that wave finally break and roll back. For the past two years, dispensaries have flourished in this northeast corner of Los Angeles as part of a grand and unofficial experiment that tested both the limits of the law and perception -- one that will for the most part end under the city's new medical marijuana ordinance.

A community of just 34,000 souls, Eagle Rock has seen the number of dispensaries double to about 20 since 2007, which some observers say is as much due to dispensary bans in adjacent Pasadena and Glendale as it is to a legal loophole big enough to stick a blunt through that allowed dispensaries to open despite a moratorium throughout Los Angeles.

But even as a crackdown appears imminent, evidenced by what some call the overzealous antics of the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office, which in January won an unprecedented injunction to shut down one Eagle Rock collective, there's a rising sentiment that the ordinance will only make matters worse for dispensary operators, their patients and the community.

"It seems like this ordinance will have a negative impact on Eagle Rock and every other area of Los Angeles, because if the collectives don't serve the patients, we're very worried the black market will fill in," said attorney Stewart Richlin, who represents about 200 Southern California dispensaries.

There's even fear among some community leaders that the ordinance, which will prohibit dispensaries from operating within 1,000 feet of schools, churches, rehabs, homes and other so-called "sensitive uses," will force dispensaries and their patients into undesirable commercial or industrial areas where crime festers.

"That doesn't strike me as humane, reasonable or in any way in the spirit of the law," said Stephan Early, president of the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council.

The ordinance also ultimately seeks to reduce the Los Angeles' bounty of 700-plus dispensaries to 70, which Early likened to city officials cutting bait in what could be a sizeable revenue stream for a city budget riddled with deficit.

"It seems amazing to me that we have draconian budget cuts to education and all city services and, on the other hand, we have a river of unaccounted money," Early said.

But still others say any action to reduce the number of dispensaries is welcome in a community that for too long has lived with what — in the opinion of Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley -- amounts to illegal drug sales that tarnish the community's image, said Michael Larsen, the Neighborhood Council's safety director.

Too weird to live, too rare to die

In September 2007, nearly 11 years after California voters approved the use of marijuana for medical purposes, the Los Angeles City Council passed an interim ordinance that placed a moratorium on new dispensaries beyond the 186 already in operation at the time. But one section of that law -- and a general lack of enforcement -- allowed hundreds of new dispensaries to open across LA after claiming a hardship exemption.

Eagle Rock was no exception. About three-quarters of the dispensaries now in operation there either claimed a hardship exemption, opened after the council denied the exemption or simply flung open their doors despite the ordinance, testing LA City Attorney Carmen Trutanich's contention that retail sales are not permitted under state law. In January, the council eventually removed the hardship exemption at the request of Councilman Jose Huizar, who represents Eagle Rock.

A month later, a judge struck down an extension of the interim ordinance that the council passed over the summer, but county and city officials vowed to continue their crackdown.

That they did when one collective, Hemp Factory V, quietly opened on Colorado Boulevard last year after its exemption was denied. A judge granted the city attorney an injunction in January blocking sales at the location under state drug laws, as well as under another law requiring proper labeling of food, drugs and cosmetics. Lawsuits against other dispensaries in other parts of the city followed, multiple eviction letters went out from landlords renting to dispensaries, and a few operators were carted off to jail for what authorities called illegal marijuana sales.

If Eagle Rock's dispensary operators fear they may be next, they're keeping quiet about it; none of the dispensaries operating in alleged violation of the interim ordinance would comment for this report. But other operators rue the day the other shoe may drop.

"On our side, we don’t have to worry about anything," said Pastor Garcia, manager of Colorado Quality Pain Relief Collective, adding that the outlet is one of the 186 that will be eligible to register with the city once the ordinance takes effect. "But I don't want to see any other collectives shut down. We're in a recession and we're losing jobs. It doesn’t make sense."

Technical questions abound as to how the city will actually reduce the number of dispensaries. Larsen, of the Neighborhood Council, said he has suspicions that much of it will be a police response. "I think it has been very frustrating for all of the enforcement agencies to stand by and not have any ordinance or law to stand on as far as enforcement," Larsen said.

While approved, the ordinance will not take effect until the City Council OKs about $1,200 in fees dispensary owners must pay to operate. Council members could act on those fees Friday. The ordinance would take effect about a month after that.

However, Americans for Safe Access, an Oakland-based nonprofit backing sensible medical marijuana policy since a spat of federal raids on patients in 2002, and two collectives asked a judge in March to declare it unconstitutional. The judge has yet to rule.

Greener horizons

Even with new regulations in place, the Neighborhood Council's Early doubts the world of medical marijuana will become any less hazy.

"Part of the problem is the ambiguity of the law and the lack of reasonable legal guidelines," Early said. "But all of that kind of becomes moot, because in November we’re going to vote on whether it should be legal."

Indeed, Californians will get their say on the issue by way of the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010 on the November ballot. If it passes, the initiative will allow adults 21 and over to posses an ounce of pot and cultivate the herb in a 25 square-foot area, while letting local governments tax sales.

While law enforcement groups say legalization would only add to existing societal woes, supporters say it is clear that the herb is safer and has less of an impact than alcohol. Plus, added Garcia, "California needs cannabis to at least help out the budget."

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