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Gary Walker, The Argonaut
Medical marijuana dispensaries operating outside the letter of the law beware: Los Angeles City Attorney Michael Feuer has you in his sights.
Since taking office a little more than half a year ago, Feuer has filed misdemeanor charges against operators of 70 cannabis clinics throughout the city, won a court order to keep another from opening in Mar Vista and compelled several Westside dispensaries to shut their doors.
West of the 405, four Venice clinics and one in Mar Vista have shuttered in the past six weeks — a branch of the Farmacy chain on the 1500 block of ultra-hip Abbot Kinney Boulevard, Cal Med Access on Washington Boulevard, Tamer El Shaikhs on Pacific Avenue, California Healing Gardens on Lincoln Boulevard and Venice Compassionate Holistic Therapy on Inglewood Boulevard in Mar Vista.
Feuer, previously a Los Angeles City Councilman and Democratic state Assembly member, has also recently filed misdemeanor charges against Green Cure on Main Street in Venice and Green Cross LAX on Manchester Avenue in Westchester, according to his office.
The city attorney’s not-so-secret weapon: Los Angeles voters, who in May passed Proposition D, a city ordinance that shut the door behind 135 taxpaying dispensaries grandfathered under the law and imposed distance requirements between clinics and schools, youth centers and some residential neighborhoods.
On its website, the Farmacy posted that it would relocate its Abbot Kinney store because it was too close to the Vera Davis Youth Center under the rules of Proposition D. Representatives for the Farmacy and other clinics did not return calls or could not be reached.
In his ultimately victorious November lawsuit to prevent the opening of a planned dispensary at 3472 Ceninela Ave. in Mar Vista — the first-ever preemptive application of Proposition D — Feuer added property owners and others handling real estate transactions to the list of those potentially for marijuana dispensaries operating outside of the law.
The suit sought penalties of up to $2,500 per individual per day for anyone involved in dispensary activity at the location, including the building’s manager.
“We will use every tool available to us to enforce Proposition D and uphold the will of the voters,” Feuer said in a statement following a Los Angeles Superior Court judge’s Jan. 9 order that a temporary injunction against the proposed Mar Vista clinic be made permanent.
“Our office will be launching an education campaign directed to real estate brokers, salespersons and leasing agents to help them comply with Proposition D. It is essential for them to understand the law and the seriousness of their aiding an unlawful medical marijuana business to open. They need to know that they, along with dispensary owners and landlords, could find themselves included in our enforcement efforts,” Feuer’s statement continued.
Naturally, not everyone is pleased with Feuer’s efforts.
“I think that the city attorney’s actions have been very aggressive and I think they are misguided,” said David Welch, a Los Angeles criminal defense attorney representing landlords who Feuer’s office is prosecuting. “Many of the landlords were unaware of who they were renting to, and to prosecute them for that I find wholly unfair.”
Welch also said that medical marijuana regulations have changed so rapidly in Los Angles that the rules have become confusing for property owners.
Criminal defense attorney Bruce Margolin, director of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, takes the argument one step further. He contends that not only is Feuer’s use of Proposition D out of bounds, but also the law itself.
“We’re fighting back for a number of reasons, and one of them is the constitutionality of Proposition D,” Margolin said. “Those people who were grandfathered in got, in my mind, a monopoly. There’s an argument to be made that there was never any ability for anyone to qualify [under the law]. By the time they let people sign up, the time period had already lapsed.”
Margolin said he recently filed a court motion to drop Proposition D-related charges against an East Los Angeles operator, arguing in the document that the ordinance constitutes a land-use amendment that would have received a vetting by city planning commissioners before the L.A. City Council sent it to voters.
“The whole thing stinks, and the smell isn’t coming from the voters — it’s coming from the laws. It’s just not fair or just to the community, the patients, or people who are in good faith trying to participate,” Margolin said.
Shut down too many clinics, Margolin said, “and it’s going to be a terrible disservice to the patients. It’s going to put people back on the black market again.”
Americans for Safe Access, an advocacy group that supports legal access to cannabis for research and therapeutic use, also has concerns.
Kris Hermes, a spokesman for the group, said Feuer may be within his right to enforce the law, but closing down a large number of clinics ultimately hurts sick people.
Authorities should “pay attention that they are not curtailing the needs of patients throughout the city,” he said.
Hermes also said the justification officials cite in going after clinics — negative impacts on surrounding neighborhoods — “has been greatly exaggerated.”
But Cyndi Hench, president of the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa, said residents have about medical marijuana dispensaries.
“An aggressive approach is what is needed. There has been lawless distribution of medical marijuana for too long,” said Mar Vista resident Steve Wallace, who helped organize a series of protests outside against the planned Mar Vista clinic before Feuer got involved.
City Councilman Mike Bonin, a Feuer ally who represents Mar Vista and Venice, said the injunction against the Mar Vista dispensary bolstered quality of life for residents.
“This tremendous victory goes to show what happens when a passionate community, a dedicated council office and an effective city attorney work together to put neighborhoods first,” Bonin said.
The push to enforce Proposition D ironically comes at a time when public attitudes about marijuana appear to be softening.
A Field Poll in December found 55% of Californians favor outright legalization of marijuana, but medical marijuana dispensaries continue to be banned in cities throughout the state.
“Local public officials are very much out of step with the will of most Californians,” Hermes said.