LOS ANGELES — Lawyers for Los Angeles County recommended a “surge strategy” April 18 to shut down medical marijuana dispensaries operating illegally in the face of a ban in effect in unincorporated areas.
The county’s legal team told the Board of Supervisors that they had closed 60 dispensaries between 2011-16 and another 31 after the board asked for a crackdown in March 2016.
Enforcement is pending against another 49 dispensaries and lawyers are prepping to force 26 more to close. That would account for all the marijuana retailers identified by the county to date, though new shops continue to pop up.
County counsel estimated that it would take four to six months to close the remaining 75 on the county’s hit list if more county lawyers were hired to team up with the District Attorney’s Office.
“County Counsel and the District Attorney recommend an aggressive, uniform and expeditious enforcement ‘surge strategy’ against illegal [dispensaries],” lead counsel Mary Wickham wrote in a letter to the board.
Though a county ban on dispensaries has been in place since 2011, enforcing a zero-tolerance policy has proven difficult.
Dispensaries shut down and then open up under different names, creating a game of “whack-a-mole” for enforcement agencies, said Lance Wong, head deputy of the district attorney’s Major Narcotics Division.
The lucrative nature of the business means that entrepreneurs fight hard to keep their dispensaries open, with some filing civil suits against the county. Wong said another problem is that some people mistakenly believe that dispensaries are legal everywhere.
In addition to bringing the hammer down on dispensaries, the county has banned cultivation and distribution of marijuana in unincorporated areas. That ordinance is set to expire in June, but county counsel said it would be rolled into a new regulation.
Landlords are also prohibited by county law from renting to dispensaries.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger said it was tough for landlords to turn down the premiums being offered by some would-be dispensary operators and stressed the importance of educating property owners.
Barger also highlighted public safety concerns that surround dispensaries that operate as all-cash businesses, reminding colleagues of a dispensary employee murdered in her district.
Supervisor Hilda Solis echoed that concern and also worried aloud about dispensaries near schools.
Many residents agreed.
“This has to stop. We are overpopulated with these stores. There’s at least 50 within a five-mile radius,” East Los Angeles resident Jeseus Huertas told the board. “We need some regulations.”
Supervisor Janice Hahn said she would like to see more enforcement in her district, which stretches along the South Bay and then along the border with Orange County out to Diamond Bar.
“There’s a ban. They’re illegal. They ought to be shut down,” Hahn said.
Recent enforcement has focused on Solis’ First District, which runs from downtown Los Angeles east to Pomona and south to South Gate. Twenty-five of the 31 dispensaries shut down in the last year were in those neighborhoods.
The county crackdown comes as other jurisdictions seek to profit from the statewide legislation of recreational marijuana, approved by voters in November.
Recreational sales will not begin under the new law until January, but some residents and business owners urged the county to focus on licensing and regulating dispensaries rather than banning them.
“If the goal is to maximize the transition from the illicit market to the regulated market, then we should try and figure out how to transition some of these operators,” said Cat Packer, California policy coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance. “We need a surge of economic opportunities for communities.”
Under the state law, local jurisdictions can only ban commercial activities and outdoor cultivation, something county lawyers are preparing to do.
“Why continue to wage a battle that you obviously are losing?” resident David Green asked the board. “Almost 60 percent of the voters thought recreational use was fine.”
Other advocates stressed the drug’s medicinal value.
“Cannabis is an exit drug [for me],” said Alexis D’Angelo of Women Grow Los Angeles. D’Angelo called the drug life-saving, telling the board she was able to wean herself off six pharmaceutical drugs and stay away from alcohol by substituting marijuana.
The report by county counsel required no vote by the board and no action was taken.
The county has set up an anonymous tip line — (213) 974-6453 — for residents to report dispensaries.