High Times and Misdemeanors in L.A.

Public Affairs Consultant specializing in Issue Advocacy and Strategic Communications

On the same day that a new police chief assumed the helm in Los Angeles, a battle waged at City Hall over marijuana dispensaries.

Here in L.A., we have experienced an explosion of such dispensaries over the past four years. While other cities in California acted to limit the numbers of dispensaries, our city council opted to keep punting the issue to avoid having to favor important constituencies over others.

Today, it is estimated that there are approximately 1,000 pot dispensaries in the City of Los Angeles, many of which are concentrated in the San Fernando Valley where I live. One is located just one block from my house, and another is located two blocks from my kids’ elementary school.

For those with chronic pains or facing deadly diseases, I don’t think very many people object to them being able to get relief. The objections usually arise from residential and commercial neighbors who complain about the dispensaries’ clientele, who, in some cases smoke pot inside the store or in the parking lot or loiter in front of the store. Others worry that some stores are a magnet for crime.

According to law enforcement, the pot dispensaries make it easier for drug dealers to buy large quantities of pot locally with little hassle and re-sell it on the street to regular stoners who are too lazy to obtain “recommendations” from doctors. Some dispensaries, they argue, work with drug cartels and gangs to grow and distribute their products, which, unlike drugs sold at pharmacies, are not regulated so that consumers don’t always know just what exactly they’re inhaling.

L.A.’s newly elected city attorney, Carmen Trutanich, and L.A. County District Attorney, Steve Cooley, have both forcefully argued that the sale of marijuana in California is strictly against the law. Prop. 215, which I voted for in 1996, does not allow for the sale of pot—only the cultivation of six plants per year for medicinal purposes. If cultivation is not practical, another option is to help finance cultivation through a non-profit co-op.

So far, the L.A. City Council has ignored Trutanich (who in four short months in office has managed to antagonize nearly the entire city council and downtown establishment). And now, District Attorney Steve Cooley, a close ally of Trutanich, has announced that he will step up enforcement of his interpretation of the law and shut down every for-profit dispensary in L.A. County.

Cooley’s announcement occurred just hours after Chief Beck was approved by the L.A. City Council and sworn in by the mayor. The dispensary dispute puts Beck in a pickle. Does he risk going against the city council on the first crisis on his watch? Or, does he go along with the city council’s defiance of state and federal laws and allow the dispensaries to stay put? This complicated issue needs leadership.

For many homeowners and pot dispensary operators alike, questions arise about why the L.A. City Council, which is a fulltime job paying $178,000 annually, did nothing while other cities with far fewer resources and part-time officeholders were able to limit dispensaries to just a handful? What happened?

Like other high-profile legislative bodies, L.A. City Councilmembers have learned that it’s more politically expedient to ignore problems than to address them—and we as voters have allowed this to occur. If a complicated problem cannot be fixed quickly and without angering some vocal people, it’s not worth getting involved. Another factor is that half the city council—along with our mayor—will be termed out in 2013, and each of them is either running for mayor or statewide office.

Like onlookers who passively walk by crimes in process, it’s easier not to get involved.

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