Rival marijuana measures thrown into the electoral pot
April 20, 2013
Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times
Dozens of medical marijuana activists rallied outside Los Angeles City Hall last week, declaring war on an enemy.
Their target was not the federal government, whose agents raided several local dispensaries in recent days, or neighborhood groups trying to shut down the city's estimated 700 pot shops.
The enemy was fellow medical marijuana advocates.
Three competing measures on the May 21 city ballot have divided L.A.'s lucrative medical cannabis industry, with each side accusing the other of trying only to protect profits, not do what is best for patients.
The measures may appear similar to the uninitiated, but they would greatly benefit different groups of pot businesses.
Yami Bolanos, who runs PureLife Alternative Wellness Center, is backing Proposition D, which would shrink the number of pot shops to about 130. Only dispensaries like Bolanos', which opened before the adoption of a failed 2007 city moratorium on new shops, would be allowed to continue operating.
At the City Hall rally and news conference, Bolanos accused some newer shops of catering to drug dealers by not requiring doctor's prescriptions and selling more than 8 ounces of marijuana per visit to customers, more than twice what her store allows.
"Who needs 8 ounces, unless you're going to break it up into dime bags and sell it in the street?" she said.
Proposition D is backed by the Los Angeles County Democratic Club and by a labor union that has organized workers at dozens of older dispensaries. The measure was placed on the ballot by the City Council to counter two measures that qualified through the initiative process.
One of those initiatives, Measure F, would place no limit on the number of pot shops but would require them to submit to city audits, test cannabis for toxins and keep a certain distance from schools, parks and other dispensaries. It is being pushed by a coalition of shops that opened after the 2007 moratorium. Like Proposition D, it would increase taxes on pot sales.
A third measure, Initiative Ordinance E, would permit only the older shops but would not raise taxes. It was put on the ballot by a group of older shops and the dispensary employees union, but that coalition has shifted its support to the council-backed Proposition D.
The measure with the most votes will win, but only if it receives more than 50% of the vote. If none of the three receives majority approval, they all fail.
With the election a month away, the competing camps are collecting campaign cash and stepping up attacks. An anti-Proposition D website warns that the initiative would create a monopoly for older shops and the rise of "pot superstores." By forcing existing dispensaries to close, "Proposition D encourages building massive marijuana drug centers that could greatly increase crime for nearby residents," the site says.
Grace Moore, who opened Grace Medical Marijuana Pharmacy in 2009, said she is fighting Proposition D because market forces should determine the number of dispensaries, not government. "The good will succeed, and the places that are not so nice, people will not frequent," she said.
At her Pico Boulevard shop, customers are offered strains of pot like Purple Cush and Blue Dream, as well as "Yes on Measure F" wristbands.
Moore has been growing marijuana for decades. As a single mother living in West Virginia, she said she used to trade her pot for hay. Her business has been successful, she says, because she grows cannabis without pesticides and offers a safe environment for patients. "We are an option for women and for truly ill people," she said.
But critics say the free-market model hasn't worked, pointing to heavy concentrations of pot shops in some parts of the city, including a stretch of Mid-City known as the "Green Mile."
Michael Larsen, a member of the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council, fought to curb the glut of dispensaries in his community. He opposes all the pot measures. Measure F allows too many stores, he said, and the council-backed Proposition D doesn't ensure the safety of dispensaries or provide a mechanism for neighbors to complain about bad operators.
L.A. has struggled for years to regulate the location of pot shops against a backdrop of contradictory court rulings on cities' legal authority to regulate pot. The city is battling more than 60 lawsuits over its earlier attempts at regulation, and many predict new lawsuits are inevitable after the May election.
"Whoever views themselves as the loser will immediately start litigating," said former LAPD chief and current Councilman Bernard Parks. He wrote the ballot measure arguments against all three initiatives, arguing that federal law prohibits the possession and sale of marijuana even if state law allows it for medicinal use.
"You can't regulate an illegal business," he said.
On those grounds, the City Council last year voted 14 to 0 to outlaw over-the-counter sales of marijuana, while allowing small groups of patients to grow the drug for their own use. But it reversed the action after the coalition of older dispensaries and union workers qualified a measure for the ballot that would have repealed the ban.
Attorney David Welch, who is backing Measure F, said the council has been hostile toward medical marijuana and voters should reject the city-backed ballot proposal. He cited a council vote last August that instructed police to work with the federal Drug Enforcement Agency "to deal with medical marijuana collectives."
The next month, federal agents raided several pot shops in downtown and Eagle Rock, an area represented by Councilman Jose Huizar, a leading dispensary opponent. The council's Proposition D is "a Trojan horse" intended to confuse and overwhelm voters, Welch said. "They want these measures to fail."
Huizar, Parks and other council members are urging voters to reject all three measures. But several elected officials are backing Proposition D, including council members Bill Rosendahl and Paul Koretz and mayoral candidates Wendy Greuel and Eric Garcetti. It is also endorsed by City Atty. Carmen Trutanich, who in the past argued that all for-profit pot sales are illegal.
California voters have generally supported medical marijuana. In 1996, California became the first state to legalize medicinal use of pot, although many have complained that subsequent state laws failed to clarify how the drug should be distributed. In 2011, Los Angeles voters approved a ballot measure to tax medical marijuana sales.
There are no official estimates of medical pot sales in the city, but police believe there are between 600 and 700 shops, and dispensary owners say sales of $1 million annually are not uncommon.
Don Duncan, California director of the medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, said it is unfortunate that pot supporters are being forced to choose sides. But the ballot measure fight doesn't reflect a larger schism in the medical marijuana movement, he said.
"We're not talking about a community division, we're talking about an industry division."
His group has endorsed Proposition D. But he hopes the infighting doesn't doom all the measures. "We certainly cannot afford for everybody to lose," he said.