The days of the “wild west” for medical marijuana dispensaries may be coming to a close in the City of Los Angeles.
The L.A. City Attorney's office has begun sending misdemeanor complaints to the owners, operators, and landlords of clubs ineligible to stay open under the city's voter-approved medical marijuana regulations, called Measure D.
In mid-September, the new L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer filed criminal misdemeanor complaints against seven clubs for violating Measure D, said city attorney spokesman Rob Wilcox. On Oct. 11, Feuer announced a total of 38 complaints, as well as 42 voluntary club closures. About 800 other locations have been notified to decist selling medical weed. The misdemeanor complaints can lead to six months of jail time for dispensary operators, owners, and landlords, and fines of $2,500 per day.
Arguably the largest medical cannabis city in the world, the city of L.A. has struggled with how to manage lawful medical cannabis collectives who open and operate retail storefronts to distribute the drug to collective members for cash.
The city council tried and failed to lawfully regulate clubs in 2007, then attempted a "gentle ban" in 2011. Irate patients gathered enough signatures to halt the gentle ban, and the effort set the stage for the election earlier this year that resulted in the passage of Measure D.
In addition to that measure, there were two others — Measures E and F — on the May ballot, and each offered different pot rules. The LA City Council — along with advocacy group Americans for Safe Access and the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770 — threw its support behind Measure D. Measure D passed by a wide margin May 21.
Measure D permits about 135 dispensaries in the City of Los Angeles, or about one club per 28,296 residents. That's more clubs per capita than San Francisco (1 for every 40,645 residents) and Oakland (1 for every 49,477 residents), and about the same as Berkeley (1 for every 28,476 residents).
The lucky 135 or so clubs had to be open and registered with the Los Angeles City Clerk since 2007, as well as re-registered again in 2010 and 2011, to remain in business. The clubs also have to abide by a list of rules, such as observing buffer zones from schools, parks, and residential areas; being closed from 8 p.m. to 10 a.m.; preventing on-site marijuana consumption; denying entry to minors; conducting background checks for management; and having no marijuana visible from their exteriors. The rules also prohibit dispensary chain stores.
Measure D will result in the closure of about 280 dispensaries in Los Angeles that are operating illegally. But not without a fight.
Los Angeles attorney Stewart Richlin represents one club charged with a Measure D misdemeanor. He said very few dispensaries are willingly closing since Measure D passed. His group is challenging Measure D in a lawsuit filed in September, arguing the regulations are arbitrary and unfair to new clubs. They violate the constitution's due-process and equal-protection clauses, he said. "It picks and chooses winners and losers," he said. "It's un-American."
If a judge accepts Richlin's motion to block Measure D, the misdemeanor complaints will fall apart, he said.
Patient advocate Dege Coutee said clubs are closing or moving around, essentially playing a game of whack-a-mole with the city.
“I think eventually we'll see something sensible, bit it's going to be a lengthy process.”
Americans for Safe Access spokesperson Don Duncan said L.A. is undergoing the same type of historical regulation that has occurred in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond, and West Hollywood.
“I would hope the City of L.A. is getting it's house in order,” he said.
Doing so will “ give us some leeway to regulate in Sacramento,” he said.