Thursday, April 15, 2010

Fear and loathing in Eagle Rock

They had all the momentum; riding the crest of a high and beautiful
wave, so to speak. But in a little less than two months, dispensary
operators in Eagle Rock, where the medical marijuana trade has reached a
high-water mark, may see that wave finally break and roll back.

For the past two years, dispensaries have flourished in this northeast
corner of Los Angeles as part of a grand and unofficial experiment that
tested both the limits of the law and perception — one that will for
the most part end under the city's new medical marijuana ordinance.

A community of just 34,000 souls, Eagle Rock has seen the number of
dispensaries double to about 20 since 2007, which some observers say is
as much due to dispensary bans in adjacent Pasadena and Glendale as it
is to a legal loophole big enough to stick a blunt through that allowed
dispensaries to open despite a moratorium throughout Los Angeles.

But even as a crackdown appears imminent, evidenced by what some call
the overzealous antics of the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office,
which in January won an unprecedented injunction to shut down one Eagle
Rock collective, there's a rising sentiment that the ordinance will
only make matters worse for dispensary operators, their patients and the

"It seems like this ordinance will have a negative impact on Eagle
Rock and every other area of Los Angeles, because if the collectives
don't serve the patients, we're very worried the black market
will fill in," said attorney Stewart Richlin, who represents about
200 Southern California dispensaries.

There's even fear among some community leaders that the ordinance,
which will prohibit dispensaries from operating within 1,000 feet of
schools, churches, rehabs, homes and other so-called "sensitive
uses," will force dispensaries and their patients into undesirable
commercial or industrial areas where crime festers.

"That doesn't strike me as humane, reasonable or in any way in
the spirit of the law," said Stephan Early, president of the Eagle
Rock Neighborhood Council.

The ordinance also ultimately seeks to reduce the Los Angeles'
bounty of 700-plus dispensaries to 70, which Early likened to city
officials cutting bait in what could be a sizeable revenue stream for a
city budget riddled with deficit.
"It seems amazing to me that we have draconian budget cuts to
education and all city services and, on the other hand, we have a river
of unaccounted money," Early said.

But still others say any action to reduce the number of dispensaries is
welcome in a community that for too long has lived with what — in
the opinion of Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley —
amounts to illegal drug sales that tarnish the community's image,
said Michael Larsen, the Neighborhood Council's safety director.

Too weird to live, too rare to die

In September 2007, nearly 11 years after California voters approved the
use of marijuana for medical purposes, the Los Angeles City Council
passed an interim ordinance that placed a moratorium on new dispensaries
beyond the 186 already in operation at the time. But one section of that
law — and a general lack of enforcement — allowed hundreds of
new dispensaries to open across LA after claiming a hardship exemption.

Eagle Rock was no exception. About three-quarters of the dispensaries
now in operation there either claimed a hardship exemption, opened after
the council denied the exemption or simply flung open their doors
despite the ordinance, testing LA City Attorney Carmen Trutanich's
contention that retail sales are not permitted under state law. In
January, the council eventually removed the hardship exemption at the
request of Councilman Jose Huizar, who represents Eagle Rock.

A month later, a judge struck down an extension of the interim ordinance
that the council passed over the summer, but county and city officials
vowed to continue their crackdown.

That they did when one collective, Hemp Factory V, quietly opened on
Colorado Boulevard last year after its exemption was denied. A judge
granted the city attorney an injunction in January blocking sales at the
location under state drug laws, as well as under another law requiring
proper labeling of food, drugs and cosmetics. Lawsuits against other
dispensaries in other parts of the city followed, multiple eviction
letters went out from landlords renting to dispensaries, and a few
operators were carted off to jail for what authorities called illegal
marijuana sales.

If Eagle Rock's dispensary operators fear they may be next,
they're keeping quiet about it; none of the dispensaries operating
in alleged violation of the interim ordinance would comment for this
report. But other operators rue the day the other shoe may drop.
"On our side, we don't have to worry about anything," said
Pastor Garcia, manager of Colorado Quality Pain Relief Collective,
adding that the outlet is one of the 186 that will be eligible to
register with the city once the ordinance takes effect. "But I
don't want to see any other collectives shut down. We're in a
recession and we're losing jobs. It doesn't make sense."

Technical questions abound as to how the city will actually reduce the
number of dispensaries. Larsen, of the Neighborhood Council, said he has
suspicions that much of it will be a police response. "I think it
has been very frustrating for all of the enforcement agencies to stand
by and not have any ordinance or law to stand on as far as
enforcement," Larsen said.

While approved, the ordinance will not take effect until the City
Council OKs about $1,200 in fees dispensary owners must pay to operate.
Council members could act on those fees Friday. The ordinance would take
effect about a month after that.

However, Americans for Safe Access, an Oakland-based nonprofit backing
sensible medical marijuana policy since a spat of federal raids on
patients in 2002, and two collectives asked a judge in March to declare
it unconstitutional. The judge has yet to rule.

Greener horizons

Even with new regulations in place, the Neighborhood Council's Early
doubts the world of medical marijuana will become any less hazy.

"Part of the problem is the ambiguity of the law and the lack of
reasonable legal guidelines," Early said. "But all of that kind
of becomes moot, because in November we're going to vote on whether
it should be legal."

Indeed, Californians will get their say on the issue by way of the
Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010 on the November ballot.
If it passes, the initiative will allow adults 21 and over to posses an
ounce of pot and cultivate the herb in a 25 square-foot area, while
letting local governments tax sales.

While law enforcement groups say legalization would only add to existing
societal woes, supporters say it is clear that the herb is safer and has
less of an impact than alcohol. Plus, added Garcia, "California
needs cannabis to at least help out the budget."

1 comment:

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