Los Angeles County officials are looking for new ways to crack down on cannabis businesses operating in unincorporated areas, where they remain illegal under a county ban, including potentially locking out operators or shutting off utilities.
Despite California voters’ majority support in 2016 for making weed legal, local jurisdictions are allowed under state law to prohibit and regulate most cannabis-related activity, other than personal use, within their borders.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has kept a blanket ban on all types of cannabis-related businesses in place while it decides on a permanent regulatory framework, which could include anything from a permanent ban to licensing cultivation and both medical and recreational dispensaries or something in between. An extensive set of recommendations and options has been developed by the Office of Cannabis Management and the Department of Consumer and Business Affairs, but the board has so far failed to take any definitive action.
In the meantime, Supervisor Hilda Solis recommended a motion that tees up county lawyers and law enforcement agencies to get tough on more than 80 businesses operating illegally in defiance of the ban.
“For the past year and a half I have been working closely with many community members from my district to combat illegally operating marijuana businesses,” Solis said. “Before the county considers recommendations for expanding marijuana businesses, we must put into place effective measures to end illegal operators.”
Solis and many residents said dispensaries had proven to be bad neighbors and efforts to shut down the businesses amounted to a “countywide game of whack-a-mole,” with a new operator popping up in place of every closed business.
Cannabis advocates and some business owners said the county had it backwards.
“Enforcement before regulation is not a way to transition a market nor to establish a viable legal market,” said advocate Jonatan Cvetko, who pushed for a pathway to licensing for existing businesses interested in playing by the rules.
The county may also mobilize residents to snitch on illegal businesses, which could be facilitated by requiring legal operators in other jurisdictions to display some sort of seal of approval.
“Our current process for shutting down illegal, unlicensed cannabis dispensaries in our unincorporated areas is not working,” said Supervisor Janice Hahn, who co-authored Solis’ motion. “We need a better and more effective strategy that uses every tool at our disposal to shut down illegal dispensaries quickly and permanently.”
Many residents who spoke before the board seemed ready to join the fight, complaining about businesses throwing late-night parties, operating too close to schools and claiming that some sold other illegal drugs.
Tony DeMarco, president of the Whittier Boulevard Merchants Association, said there are four unlicensed dispensaries within a few blocks of his business.
“They are not following any rules, any regulations,” DeMarco said, citing an undercover news feature revealing an operator willing to sell someone three-quarters of a pound of pot. The legal limit is one ounce per day per person.
“They are bad neighbors. They only care about money. … They don’t care about people. They don’t care about children. They do unsafe things,” longtime East Los Angeles resident Ron Mukai told the board.
The county’s hands may be tied in some respects.
In discussions with Southern California Edison, utility representatives said they were sympathetic to county concerns, but would have to talk to the California Public Utilities Commission about their leeway to shut down service to paying customers, according to Supervisor Kathryn Barger.
Barger, who said she was committed to “creative” means of enforcement against what she called public nuisances and to “restoring the rule of law,” asked a county lawyer about options.
The attorney replied that if a business were a health and safety violator, utilities could likely be shut off.
As for locking out owners, the lawyer told the board that businesses subject to lockdown would have to first be businesses required to obtain a county license. That would include medical marijuana dispensaries but not recreational dispensaries or farmers.
Recommendations on implementing a crackdown are due back in 90 days.