The Battles of Los Angeles: Where Pot Is Legal and Where It’s Outlawed in LA

Photo By Craig F. Walker / The Denver Post

Last night, Los Angeles voters did the smart and sensible thing and legalized over-the-counter sales of marijuana. How’s this, you say, when medical marijuana has been openly sold in California’s largest city for years? Weren’t the 135-plus dispensaries legal already? This is a reasonable line of thinking, because retail cannabis sales are indeed a thing in L.A. and have been for years, but it is wrong.

You see, in 2013, Los Angeles voters overwhelmingly voted to reduce the number of dispensaries open in L.A. from 472 to 135, an arbitrary-sounding number that is equal to the amount of dispensaries open in 2007. (So: an arbitrary number that accomplished the goal of severely reducing the city’s legal cannabis trade and the unintended consequence of enriching the operators who’d been in business the longest by offering them the playing field to themselves for four years.)

Proposition D also gave those 135 no legal protection. They were allowed to persist under what LA Weekly described as a sort of “look-the-other-way… limited legal immunity,” but they were technically illegal and had no city license (though they are still, in theory, on the hook for state sales taxes). Not a great look when, as of Jan. 1, 2018, all pot shops in the state will require state and local licensing to remain in business.

All this was solved on Tuesday with the landslide victory of Measure M, which strikes down Prop. D and allows Los Angeles to start licensing its many pot shops. Delivery services are also now legalized for the first time, and the city can start collecting local taxes on marijuana sales.

It’s a big victory for the city’s cannabis industry, and Measure M’s 77 percent support is a demonstration of how much popular clout weed carries—which is just in time for Los Angeles to pursue a countywide crackdown on 70 dispensaries that have been operating in violation of a 2011 ban. These pot shops are in unincorporated Los Angeles County, not L.A. proper.

L.A. County stretches from the ocean over the forested San Gabriel Mountains, through scrub brush-dotted hills all the way to the desert. Sometimes the distinction is vague, confusing and meaningless in context—some unincorporated areas are the size of a few city blocks and are indistinguishable from the “city” around it; other areas include vast areas of uninhabited mountains and desert.

In any event, if a plan set to be discussed by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors today is approved, all 70 dispensaries in operation in unincorporated L.A. County outside of city limits could be shut down by county sheriff’s deputies, as LA Weekly reports.

As the 70 dispensaries very obviously defying the ban demonstrate, the “ban” is more of an idea than anything else. Prop. D was likewise flagrantly disobeyed, with numerous dispensaries opening for business as if it didn’t exist. This is one reason why politicians like supervisor Hilda Solis is pushing for sheriff’s deputies to start enforcing the ban within 30 days.

“As it is now, I feel very frustrated,” she told NPR affiliate KPCC. “Areas that are heavily impacted, like East Los Angeles or South Central L.A., we deserve to have the appropriate enforcement and regulation.”

Competing with Solis’s proposal for a blanket countywide crackdown is the Measure M-like suggestion from two of her colleagues that the county would be better served by legalizing those 70 dispensaries. This plan, from supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Janice Hahn, calls for the county to determine how many marijuana stores would be allowed, where to put them and how to tax them by December.

It’s up for a vote on the same agenda as Solis’s ban plan.

Considering that L.A. sheriff’s deputies have been unwilling or unable to do anything about “outlaw” dispensaries even with a ban in place, and with commercial sales of recreational marijuana beckoning after the state legalized adult-use marijuana in November, it seems the rational move would be to get them licensed and have them start paying taxes—which is what they say they want.

“There are operators that we want to encourage to transition from the illicit to the regulated market,” says Jonatan Cvetko, the co-founder of Angeles Emeralds, a network of dispensaries and marijuana consumers in the unincorporated areas, in comments to the Weekly. “But if they end up in jail, who exactly are they going to invite into the county to participate in licensed marijuana business?”

For our money, we think L.A. will go the route to allow dispensaries to go legit, if for no other reason than it would allow the authorities to keep doing what they’ve been doing—very little—while collecting more money. What government could resist?

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