Cities crack down on medical marijuana shops as court decision, ballot measures embolden new bans
June 01, 2013
Dana Bartholomew, LA Daily NewsThe crackdown against medical pot shops across Southern California began as soon as the state's highest court ruled last month that cities could enforce their dispensary bans,
Police have raided a legion of medical marijuana dispensaries across the Southland, while legal threats have been issued to hundreds more. From Santa Ana to San Bernardino, cities that had put the kibosh on the pot shops now had potent legal ammunition in which to shut them down.
By late last week, San Bernardino had shuttered all but 10 of its 33 banned dispensaries — including two the city raided Wednesday — and was gunning to finish off the rest. Burgs from Beaumont to Anaheim have followed suit.
"For two years we've had to explain to people why we weren't shutting them down," said San Bernardino City Attorney James F. Penman, who had been holding off on enforcing the city ban until the May 6 state Supreme Court decision, lest the city risk losing a lawsuit. "(But) there's been a big push by council members and by the public to hurry up and close them.
"We get far more calls from people thinking there's a dispensary that's reopened near them than ... anything else right now."
For medical marijuana users, the widespread closures of storefront dispensaries in the past few weeks have put gaps in their supplies. For residents weary of the state's 17-year experiment with medical pot, the renewed enforcement means a breath of fresh air.
Pot shop bans are now being enforced in as many as 94 cities and five counties across the Southland.
Two weeks ago, Los Angeles voters elected to sharply slash the city's number of dispensaries — from as many as 2,000, city officials say, to 135. The Proposition D law is expected to face fierce legal challenges.
Even as states like Colorado and Washington legalize marijuana — while it remains illegal under federal law — California is moving toward a patchwork of vast swaths where marijuana users won't be able to walk into a store and legally buy weed.
Some in the industry say that will return it to the underground, where couriers and secret pot clubs will distribute buds within counties and cities that otherwise serve as No Stoned Zones, similar to the dry counties that sprang up across the U.S. after Prohibition was repealed.
As many as nine counties and 72 cities across the state have already passed dispensary moratoriums, including Los Angeles, Downey, Redlands, Rosemead, San Dimas, Santa Monica, South Gate, Victorville and Westlake Village, advocates say, with varying levels of enforcement.
Many cities now enforcing pot shop bans lie in Orange County and the Inland Empire, with stores also outlawed in unincorporated Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Santa Barbara counties. They had banned the dispensaries because of worries about lax control over distribution of a drug still illegal under federal law.
The state Supreme Court decision followed a challenge to Riverside's dispensary ban. The city, backed by the League of California Cities, had argued cities have a right to regulate land use.
The court found that California's Proposition 215, approved by voters in 1996, permitted medical marijuana, but didn't address local regulation. It said local governments can use nuisance laws and other regulations to ban activities and land uses such as pot shops.
Such cities as Costa Mesa, Garden Grove, Anaheim, Santa Ana have already initiated crackdowns, with some issuing dozens of letters to offending businesses threatening fines of $1,000 per day and possible criminal charges. Meanwhile, Beaumont became the latest city to ban dispensaries.
"The patchwork landscape is extremely frustrating, leaving whole areas without legal access," said Kris Hermes, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, a national medical marijuana advocacy group based in Oakland. "What we need is a more equitable regulatory system, that is being worked on at the state level."
In Los Angeles, attorneys are preparing to send out warning notices to as many as 2,000 illegal shops as soon as the new law is certified, according to a City Attorney's Office spokesman. Under the measure, only the 135 dispensaries that were operating before a failed moratorium six years ago can stay open.
Those that do must be at least 600 feet from any park, school or child-care center and fork over 6 percent of their gross in taxes.
"Essentially, between the bans and the moratoriums, nearly every city in the state has put a ban against dispensaries," said F. Freddy Sayegh, a Culver City attorney who has represented medical marijuana dispensaries, and was the keynote speaker at a hemp convention last weekend in Los Angeles.
"What I see happening because of Prop. D in Los Angeles and the Supreme Court ruling, this thriving legally controlled market will evaporate and go underground — at a person's home, car, business. There will be private collectives or cooperatives."
And that would be just fine with some local advocates who say guidelines from the state attorney general urge that pot must be grown and distributed within private patient groups.
"You have no signage. You have no offensive people hanging out anywhere. You have a group that takes care of itself," said Bob, a pot business consultant who runs a Hollywood collective delivery service and has been advocating for legalization since the 1970s, who declined to give his last name. "You don't want to create waves or be a nuisance in the community."
Los Angeles Councilman Jose Huizar noted that an appellate court ruling upheld a 2010 city ordinance that sought to limit the number of pot shops to 70s. An attempt was made last year to ban them altogether.
"It is a Groundhog Day situation," said Huizar, who once supported a ban, in a statement. "The key will once again be whether we as a City can enforce Measure D or whether the dispensaries not covered under its provisions will once again delay enforcement through the courts."
At the HempCon conference that took place downtown last weekend, hundreds lined up for what was billed as "America's largest medical marijuana show."
Lines of mostly 20- and 30-something enthusiasts lined up sporting marijuana leaf shirts, socks, or duds emblazoned with Bob Marley or Marilyn Monroe smoking a joint. Or merely the word, "addicted."
And vendors, some with racy models in low-cut tops or fishnets, lined up to hawk dispensary, courier, doctor recommendation or legal services. Or zanier smoking machines, bongs and "Doob tubes" good for odorless deliveries.
One of them was Hector Montoya, of Proteus420.com, an Escondido software company catering to cash-only dispensaries. "I have to drive great distances to find an open shop," he said. "Everything's going underground, to delivery."
Another was actor "Henry Hemp," dressed head-to-toe in leafy green, drawing from a pipe of hemp oil, which he claimed could potentially cure cancer. "I think it's the last gasp of people who don't understand the healing powers of the plant," said Hemp, aka Magic Jason Elliott, a Los Angeles transplant from Vancouver, Wash.
Nearby was Thomas Chang, a quadriplegic in a wheelchair. Five years ago, the West Covina resident said he suffered horrible constipation and drowsiness from prescription medications. Then he discovered Girl Scout, a cannabis bud he buys 10 miles from his home at a dispensary in La Puente.
He considered nine out of 10 people who purchased pot at the store to be recreational, as opposed to medicinal, pot users.
"It'll mellow you out," said Chang, 48, who said it also helps with his back spasms. Without his pot store, he said "it would create more inconvenience "¦ but if you really want it, you can get it.
"They ought to just let it go — legalize it — but keep it under control."