Pot Controversy in Los Angeles


Los Angeles Times


D.A. chides L.A. council, says he'll target pot dispensaries


Steve Cooley insists sites that sell marijuana are violating state law and will be prosecuted. Of the City Council's effort to pass an ordinance, he says: 'Quite frankly we're ignoring them.'


By John Hoeffel




November 18, 2009


With the Los Angeles City Council poised to take up a medical marijuana ordinance after two years of contentious debate, L.A. County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley warned Tuesday that he intends to prosecute dispensaries that sell the drug even if the city's leaders decide to allow those transactions.

"The L.A. City Council should be collectively ashamed of their failure to grasp this issue," Cooley said, arguing that state laws do not allow medical marijuana to be sold. "Undermining those laws via their ordinance powers is counterproductive, and quite frankly we're ignoring them. They are absolutely so irrelevant it's not funny."

The council may vote today on the ordinance, which would regulate medical marijuana dispensaries and allow the city to shut down hundreds that have opened despite a moratorium approved more than two years ago.

Cooley's broadside came a day after two council committees rejected the city's attorney's advice to ban sales.

The ordinance they recommended would allow dispensaries to accept cash contributions as long as they comply with state law, a provision Cooley derided as "meaningless" and said reflected "Alice-in-Wonderland thinking." Cooley and City Atty. Carmen Trutanich maintain that recent court decisions clearly indicate collectives cannot sell marijuana over the counter, although members can be reimbursed for the cost of growing it.

Councilman Ed Reyes, who has overseen the development of the city's ordinance, called Cooley's remarks "demeaning" and "a real shame." But Reyes said he did not think they would dissuade the council.

"This is about the quality of life. We all have better things to do than this legal jousting," he said. "It makes no sense to play political football with people's lives."

Cooley insisted that most, if not all, dispensaries are breaking the law by accepting money in exchange for marijuana and promised to step up felony prosecutions next month. "It's a target-rich environment," he said. "People think they are getting the green light."

The clash between the City Council and district attorney puts Los Angeles at the center of a growing debate about the legality of dispensaries. Although Cooley has recently emerged as the most pugnacious opponent of these stores, his views are increasingly shared by prosecutors, sheriffs and police chiefs.

"In Southern California, there's much more consistency among the D.A.s' offices than you might think," Joe D'Agostino, senior assistant district attorney in Orange County, said recently. "I think we would probably be in line with Steve Cooley in that almost all of the dispensaries as they are described to us are in violation of the law."

Three of the state's largest cities -- Los Angeles, Long Beach and San Diego -- are wrestling with ordinances that would allow dispensaries, but their deliberations have been complicated by prosecutors in those jurisdictions.

In Long Beach, City Prosecutor Tom Reeves has said some dispensaries are little more than fronts for illegal drug sales. "What's the difference between that and a drug dealer on the corner?" he said.

The debate kicked up this year in the wake of several recent state court rulings.

Some prosecutors and law enforcement officials argue the decisions bolstered their long-held view that neither Proposition 215, which voters approved in 1996, nor the state's Medical Marijuana Program Act, which the Legislature passed in 2003, specifically allow for sales.

In September, Trutanich sent the council a nine-page review of the case law.

"This is an area where the intent of the law is very clear. Collectives are allowed to grow this and distribute it amongst themselves," he said Tuesday. "Not one sentence says sales are allowed."

Lawyers for medical marijuana advocacy groups have countered with their own analyses.

The Union of Medical Marijuana Patients recently delivered a 23-page legal review to council members. "We're really disappointed because we have been thinking that the district attorney would have respect for what the City Council would come up with," said James Shaw, the group's director. "We're taking his threats as real."

Joe Elford, chief counsel for Americans for Safe Access, said that properly organized collectives can sell marijuana, citing guidelines issued last year by California Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown. "The idea that a nonprofit collective can't sell things is just a bizarre interpretation of the law," he said.

The first indication that law enforcement in Los Angeles County was focusing on the issue came in August, when Cooley and Sheriff Lee Baca warned in a letter to city officials and police chiefs that "over-the-counter sales of marijuana are patently illegal." They suggested that cities ban dispensaries.

The letter distressed officials in West Hollywood, which allows four dispensaries, but Baca said recently that he considers the city's ordinance a model that L.A. should follow.

On Tuesday, however, Cooley said West Hollywood's dispensaries appear to be engaged in illegal sales as well. "The sheriff is obligated to uphold the law too," he said.

Cooley and Trutanich urged the council not to adopt a measure they think conflicts with state law. "We may pass an ordinance that says cannibalism is legal, but the state has a different view," Trutanich said.

The two prosecutors, who are close political allies, also said the council would be doing a disservice to its constituents by passing the ordinance. "If we're setting them up to be convicted felons, that's intellectually dishonest," Trutanich said.

But Reyes said state law is not clear on the issue. "We'll let the courts decide," he said. "We are trying our very best to work with a system that is very vague at this moment."

Cooley's view is shared by others in law enforcement.

Three years ago, the Riverside County district attorney's office issued a white paper that concluded storefront dispensaries are illegal. More recently, the California Police Chiefs Assn. published a white paper that concluded: "All marijuana dispensaries should generally be considered illegal and should not be permitted to exist and engage in business within a county's or city's borders."

Dennis Tilton, retired counsel to the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department, edited that report. He said he has never seen a dispensary that he believed was operating as required by state law, but he also added, "I can't say that prosecuting dispensaries should be regarded as one of law enforcement's highest priorities."

Before Cooley issued his threat to prosecute dispensaries last month, San Diego County Dist. Atty. Bonnie Dumanis spearheaded high-profile raids against 14 dispensaries. At a news conference in September, she denounced them as "dope houses selling marijuana cookies to string on customers" and "drug dealers who see an opening in the market and a way to make a fast buck."

Dumanis said the raids were intended to send a message to the scores of dispensaries that opened in the county this year. "We're not done," she said in an interview. "People are on notice."



L.A. City Council puts off marijuana vote until next week at the earliest


November 18, 2009


John Hoeffel at Los Angeles City Hall





The Los Angeles City Council this afternoon postponed a vote on a medical marijuana ordinance until next week at the earliest.


Councilman Ed Reyes, who is overseeing efforts to craft a law, introduced a motion that would make a series of major changes to the proposal, and asked that the council take more time to review them.


He also noted that other council members had proposed numerous amendments. "This is only the tip of the iceberg," he said.



William Carter, chief deputy city attorney, agreed that it would be helpful for his office to have time to review the proposed changes to the ordinance that two committees sent to the full council on Monday.


Among the amendments is one that would reduce the distance to 500 feet from 1,000 feet that dispensaries must maintain from schools, parks, libraries and other places where children gather.


A city study showed that only a quarter of the 186 marijuana dispensaries legally operating under the moratorium adopted in 2007 would be able to meet the 1,000-foot requirement.


City officials have struggled for more than two years to write a law to regulate the dispensaries, which have proliferated across the city. Advocates say state law allows the collectives to sell marijuana to members who have a doctor's recommendation.


But Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley says state laws do not allow dispensaries to exchange marijuana for cash, and has vowed to prosecute them even if Los Angeles officials adopt a measure allowing the stores to operate.


Discussion is continuing this afternoon in the council chambers.



 LA City Council Rejects Ban on Medical Marijuana


November 16, 2009 




Rejecting the advice of the city attorney, two Los Angeles City Council committees voted today to scrap a proposed provision that would have banned the sale of medical marijuana.


The controversial measure, first proposed a year and a half ago, delayed deliberations as council members debated the wisdom of ignoring the opinion of the city's top prosecutor. But about four hours into a raucous hearing, council members made it clear they were ready to move on.


"When can we finally stop the merry-go-round?" said Councilman Dennis Zine, who kicked off the City Council's consideration of the issue in 2005 when concerns about dispensaries first surfaced. He proposed an alternative provision that would allow dispensaries to accept cash for marijuana as long as they comply with state law.


William Carter, the chief deputy city attorney, repeatedly argued that state law and state court decisions make it clear that collectives can cultivate medical marijuana but not sell it. "We're stuck with the current law," he said.


But Zine urged the council members to adopt an interpretation of the law that would not upend how dispensaries operate in Los Angeles and most of the state. "I'm saying let's push that to the edge," he said.


After the members of the planning committee and Public Safety Committee voted, David Berger, a special assistant to City Atty. Carmen Trutanich, said it is up to the council to decide whether to accept the office's legal advice. "Our duty is to advise them on what the law allows for and not to go on a whim," he said. "They decided to go a different way."


Councilman Ed Reyes, who has overseen most of the council's consideration of the issue, expressed exasperation with the city attorney's office. "I think they are very, very narrow in that they're taking their prosecutorial perspective," he said.


The long-delayed measure could be taken up by the full council as soon as Wednesday. "We need something on the books now. There is no reason why we should delay," Reyes said.


Four years ago, when the City Council first began to look into regulating dispensaries, there were four. A year later, there were 98. In 2007, when the city adopted a moratorium, 186 dispensaries were allowed to remain in business. Now, the city attorney's office estimates there could be as many as a thousand spread throughout the city, and heavily concentrated in some neighborhoods.


At the hearing, scores of dispensary operators and marijuana users argued that the proposed ban would force them to close. "It simply won't work," said Don Duncan, a Los Angeles resident who is the California director of Americans for Safe Access.


A vote for a sales ban would have taken Los Angeles into uncharted legal territory. Duncan's organization and the Union of Medical Marijuana Patients threatened to sue the city if the council adopted the provision, arguing that the city attorney's opinion was flawed.


About 400 people crowded into the main council chamber for the hearing. Most of the speakers were supporters of medical marijuana who became increasingly rowdy. They repeatedly interrupted the handful of neighborhood activists who spoke, urging the adoption of an ordinance that would reduce the number of dispensaries and clamp down on operations that create nuisances.


"Do the right thing. Protect your community. You're going to get sued anyway," said James O'Sullivan with the Miracle Mile Residential Assn.


-- John Hoeffel at City Hall




West Hollywood's medical marijuana success story

The small city enforces a strict ordinance and eliminates the drama that plagues L.A.

By John Hoeffel

November 16, 2009



A few miles from Los Angeles City Hall, a small experiment in marijuana regulation has been underway for years. While the state's largest city passed a flawed moratorium, failed to enforce it, debated proposed rules endlessly and watched flummoxed as dispensaries multiplied, West Hollywood pressed ahead.

Confronted with its own dispensary explosion in 2005, the city surrounded by L.A. imposed a moratorium on dispensaries, clamped interim rules on the ones that were open, passed a strict ordinance and capped the number allowed at four, all within two years.

When the West Hollywood City Council updated its ordinance earlier this month, the vote was unanimous, no residents spoke in opposition and the city's dispensary operators lined up in support.

Today, in contrast, two Los Angeles council committees will hold what is sure to be a boisterously contentious hearing as they try to finish an ordinance now in its fifth draft.

In West Hollywood, city officials say, it's been more than two years since a resident has complained about a dispensary. Neighborhood watch leaders say their streets are safer because the dispensary guards are required to walk nearby blocks. School officials welcome dispensaries as neighbors. And the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, which patrols the city, says there have been no recent crimes at dispensaries and no calls from agitated neighbors.

"We've been on top of this from Day 1," said Lisa Belsanti, a senior management analyst with the city who helped draw up its rules. "There's a problem, but it's in Los Angeles, it's not in West Hollywood."

Cities with no medical marijuana regulations, including Los Angeles, San Diego and Long Beach, have seen an outcry from neighborhoods upset that dispensaries open wherever they want, often in close proximity, and attract nuisances, such as traffic, and real dangers, such as robberies.

But some cities, notably San Francisco and Oakland, have tightly regulated their dispensaries, and officials there say they have had little or no trouble with them.

Although at 1.9 square miles and about 36,000 people West Hollywood is a fraction of L.A.'s size, it offers an example of how a city that adopted rules and enforced them has largely eliminated its problems.

"We've kept them on a short leash," said City Councilman John Duran, who has been involved with medical marijuana issues for years. "Today, we have minimal complaints, and they are acting responsibly."

West Hollywood -- with its large population of gays and seniors and its pride in its progressive politics -- welcomed medical marijuana as word spread that it can help AIDS patients and glaucoma sufferers. But it too experienced a neighborhood backlash as the number of dispensaries started to climb in 2004 and 2005.

Three appeared within a block of Fountain Day School. One, the Farmacy, was around the corner. Its customers lit up in a parking lot shared with the private school, upsetting parents.

"All of a sudden they started opening up boom, boom, boom, boom, boom," said Andrew Rakos, the school's general manager. "Our parent organization came to me and said we're not happy about this. There was an immediate influx of a lot of unsavory people."

The Farmacy is run by a pharmacist, JoAnna LaForce, who has treated critically ill patients with marijuana for more than 15 years. She contacted the school's parent organization, offered tours of her store, hired security and banned smoking in the parking lot. The Farmacy, like the other dispensaries, belongs to the Chamber of Commerce and its manager serves on a community advisory board.

"We're just part of the community, a part of the neighborhood. They don't see us as a risk," said LaForce, who has watched the situation in Los Angeles with dismay. She also has Farmacy dispensaries in Venice and Westwood that followed the rules to operate under the city's moratorium.

Rakos is now one of the Farmacy's most valuable supporters. Because it was within 500 feet of the school, the city wanted the Farmacy to move by the end of the year. But Rakos asked the City Council to make an exception, and it did. "We felt that it was important for the city to know that there are some businesses that are not only respectful, but listened to the needs of the community," he said.

In Los Angeles, a controversial draft ordinance has ping-ponged between the council and the city attorney's office. Neighborhood activists and dispensary operators have been largely excluded, except to speak at public hearings. West Hollywood officials, however, worked closely with residents, dispensary owners and the Sheriff's Department.

The West Hollywood ordinance restricts where dispensaries can open, sets security requirements, limits hours and bans on-site consumption. It goes further than the proposed Los Angeles ordinance to ensure that dispensaries are responsible neighbors.

The dispensaries must provide nearby residents with the name and phone number of a contact person. To discourage robberies, dispensaries must deposit each day's cash. Security guards have to patrol a two-block radius to prevent loitering and smoking, and guards must be unarmed. "We don't want the wild, wild West shootouts over marijuana and cash," Duran said.

The city also requires the dispensary operators to meet regularly with city officials to discuss problems. Those meetings are now very short. "We go in there for 10 minutes," LaForce said, "and they say -- the sheriffs in there -- any problems? No. Any concerns? No."

City officials were alarmed recently when Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said he believed most dispensaries were illegal and threatened to prosecute them. But Sheriff Lee Baca, who has advised cities to ban dispensaries, said he considers West Hollywood a model and even suggested Los Angeles adopt the same ordinance.

Baca said his deputies work closely with the city's dispensaries. "I know they're transparent, and I think the key is that our people can go in there at any time and look at their documentation," he said. "What we're interested in is organizations that try to blend commercial sales with medical sales. That's clearly illegal."

West Hollywood has four approved dispensaries, all on busy Santa Monica Boulevard.

Don Duncan, the area's most visible medical marijuana advocate as the California director for Americans for Safe Access, runs the unflashy Los Angeles Patients & Caregivers Group. A security guard is always on the sidewalk in front of the cannabis-green storefront.

"We haven't had a complaint in three years," Duncan said.

The Farmacy, unlike most outlets, leaves its door open, inviting passersby to check out its surf-and-Buddha-influenced vibe. Alternative Herbal Health Services, across the street, is more discreet, with a colorful sign much like those found at natural food stores.

Near the west end of town is the Zen Healing Collective, with an enormous neon cannabis leaf in the window.

A fifth dispensary, the Sunset Super Shop, which city officials want to shut down, occupies a metaphorical sweet spot on the Sunset Strip between the Hustler Hollywood boutique (sex) and the Whisky a Go Go (rock 'n' roll).

One issue still troubles some West Hollywood officials: that people exploit the state's medical marijuana laws to buy pot simply to get high or to resell. "There are a lot of people that hang around that look to us as undesirables, but we don't really get many complaints from the community," said sheriff's Lt. Dave Smith.

Duran believes the downside does not outweigh the benefit of giving truly sick people safe access to marijuana and creating a system that allows the city to monitor sales.

"We're the home of the Sunset Strip," he said. "We've had people smoking marijuana on Sunset since 1920. That's not going to change."