Los Angeles County D.A. Prepares to Crack Down on Pot Outlets

Medical marijuana activists protest outside a meeting of police and prosecutors in Montebello. (Photo by Bob Chamberlin)Medical marijuana activists protest outside a meeting of police and prosecutors in Montebello. (Photo by Bob Chamberlin)Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said Thursday he will prosecute medical marijuana dispensaries for over-the-counter sales, targeting a practice that has become commonplace under an initiative approved by California voters more than a decade ago.

“The vast, vast, vast majority, about 100%, of dispensaries in Los Angeles County and the city are operating illegally, they are dealing marijuana illegally, according to our theory,” he said. “The time is right to deal with this problem.”

Cooley and Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich recently concluded that state law bars sales of medical marijuana, an opinion that could spark a renewed effort by law enforcement across the state to rein in the use of marijuana. It comes as polls show a majority of state voters back legalization of marijuana, and supporters are working to place the issue on the ballot next year.

The district attorney’s office is investigating about a dozen dispensaries, following police raids, and is considering filing felony charges against one that straddles the Los Angeles-Culver City line.

“We have our strategy and we think we are on good legal ground,” Cooley said.

Medical marijuana advocates say the prosecutors are misinterpreting the law.

“I’m confident that they are not right,” said Joe Elford, chief counsel for Americans for Safe Access. “If they are right, it would mean that thousands of seriously ill Californians for whom the Compassionate Use Act was intended to help would not be able to get the medicine that they need.”

Law enforcement officials have been frustrated by the explosion in the number of dispensaries in Southern California, arguing that most are for-profit enterprises that violate the 1996 voter initiative legalizing medical marijuana and the 2003 state law permitting collective cultivation. Cooley’s announcement, coming at a news conference that followed a training session he and Trutanich conducted for narcotics officers, dramatically raises the stakes.

In the city of Los Angeles, some estimates put the number of dispensaries as high as 800. The city allowed 186 to remain open under its 2007 moratorium, but hundreds of others opened in violation of the ban while the city did nothing to shut them down.

In August, Cooley and Sheriff Lee Baca sent a letter to all mayors and police chiefs in the county, saying that they believed over-the-counter sales were illegal and encouraging cities to adopt permanent bans on dispensaries.

Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at UCLA and an expert on drug policy, was not surprised that local prosecutors had decided to attack the rapid proliferation of marijuana stores.

“I think it’s a natural response to the rather flagrant marketing practices of a bunch of the dispensaries. The medical veneer has been wearing thinner and thinner,” he said. “I’ve always wondered why those things were legal when they didn’t look legal to me.”

Cooley said he believes that under state law, collectives must raise their own marijuana and can only recoup their costs. “That’s absolutely legal,” he said. “We’re going to respect that.”

But he said none of them currently do that.

The district attorney’s warning could make the situation more chaotic in Los Angeles, where the City Council has struggled for two years to devise an ordinance to control the distribution of medical marijuana.

In addition to prosecuting dispensaries, Cooley said he would consider going after doctors who write medical marijuana recommendations for healthy people. Medical marijuana critics argue that some doctors freely recommend the drug to people who are not ill.

Medical marijuana advocates celebrated a brief thaw in the enforcement climate after the Obama administration signaled earlier this year that it would not prosecute collectives that followed state law. That spurred many entrepreneurs to open dispensaries in Los Angeles. As stores popped up near schools and parks, neighborhood activists reacted with outrage and police took notice.

Councilman Dennis Zine, a key player on the issue at L.A. City Hall, welcomed Cooley’s decision to prosecute dispensaries. “There are many that are operating illegally and it’s not a secret,” he said, adding that he believes “a few” collectives in the city are operating legally.

Anticipating that police departments will ramp up raids on dispensaries, medical marijuana advocates reacted with dismay to Cooley’s announcement.

“What we’ll see is a big disruption,” said Don Duncan, the California director for Americans for Safe Access. He called Cooley’s decision “incredible” and said, “It certainly sounds scary.”

Duncan acknowledged that many dispensaries do not follow the law and urged Cooley and Trutanich to focus exclusively on them. “You don’t have to cast a net over the entire community, you can target the problem people and not take this extreme adversarial position,” he said. “Some good people are going to be caught in the crossfire.”

About 100 medical marijuana patients, activists and dispensary owners protested on a sidewalk outside the Montebello Country Club, where about 150 prosecutors and narcotics officers met. Motorists repeatedly honked and shook their fists in support as they rolled by, triggering cheers from the crowd.

Barry Kramer, the operator of California Patients Alliance, a collective on Melrose Avenue, said many dispensaries have responsibly regulated themselves for years in the vacuum left by the City Council’s inaction.

“I feel like that gets lost,” he said. “It’s frustrating to get painted with one brush by the city.”

Kramer said he believed that dispensaries would continue to operate. “People have found ways around marijuana laws for as long as there have been marijuana laws,” he said.

But he also said that stepped-up prosecutions could resuscitate the criminal market: “Things will go underground. We’ll see a lot more crime.”

When Californians voted for Proposition 215 in 1996, they made it legal for patients with a doctor’s recommendation and their caregivers to possess and raise pot for the patient’s medical use.

In 2003, the Legislature allowed patients and caregivers “collectively or cooperatively to cultivate marijuana for medical purposes” but said they could not do it for profit.

Cooley and Trutanich, after reviewing a state Supreme Court decision from last year, have concluded that the law protects collectives from prosecution only in the cultivation of marijuana, not for sales or distribution.

Medical marijuana advocates, however, note that the state currently requires dispensaries to collect sales taxes on marijuana, and that guidelines drawn up by the attorney general conclude that “a properly organized and operated collective or cooperative that dispenses medical marijuana through a storefront may be lawful.”

The guidelines allow collectives to take costs into account but do not deal directly with over-the-counter sales.

Jacob Appelsmith, special assistant attorney general, said Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown talked to Cooley on Thursday. “Our staffs are continuing to meet about these issues,” he said.

– Article from The Los Angeles Times on October 9, 2009.

Comments

13 Comments

  1. Anonymous on

    the next med pot ballot should allow retail outlets to make profit from selling cannabis. i see no reason why they shouldnt be allowed to make money and yet be punished if they do. why should business owners need to operate a volunteer service.

  2. Anonymous on

    COOLEY THIS IS THE LAST TIME, AND PLACE THAT YOU WILL EVER HOLD ANY OFFICE IN THIS STATE, PERIOD!

  3. Anonymous on

    This is WHY!! We are takien this state OUT of the UNION and return it to the California Republic and then run assholes just like Cooley (what a name he is a COOLEY BOY FOR SURE!)Out on a rail after being tared and feathered!! thinknot? try something cooley fine out out fast you and the l.a.p.d. can fine yourselfs out of a job? in short; TRY US! COOLEY!!

  4. salty on

    Seriously..why do we still let these ignorant fucks push us around? They really are stupid, they don’t realize that the more they push the more resistance we give. Keep on telling your self that you are “helping” people, keep on prosecuting people for no reason. Your day WILL come. It’s just a matter of time until this tyranny ends. I can’t wait to see the day when everyone is fed up and overthrows (or overgrows) this government. I voted for Obama and I keep telling myself that I was wrong, but would McCain have been any different? NO! Our government is nothing but lies and scandal’s now, it’s all about the money and who has the most of it. Seriously fuck this shit! I say, if you are a legal dispensary and you did everything right, defend your business with action. By action I mean a GUN.

  5. Anonymous on

    Go ahead make bigger fools and spend money thats in short supply because

    ITS ON THE BALLOTT TO LEGALIZE MARIJUANA IN CALIFORNIA

    ANY THING THIS PIG CAN DO TO MAKE THAT BALLOT MEASURE WIN….BUST EVERYBODY AND WE WILL GET RID OF YOUR PIGGY ASSHOLE…..FUCKING PIG!

  6. Cremater on

    This is the point where it becomes time to remind people in the L.A. county area what jury nullification means and the fact that it exists.

    Since we know that at the moment California people have a majority supporting the legalization of marijuana and the majority support medical marijuana dispensaries, this is the perfect point in time to remind people of jury nullification. If THAT message can be gotten out effectively enough, it would no longer matter what the District attorney thinks about the subject.

    Remember, jury nullification does not only nullify the charges brought against a person but it also in practice nullifies the opposing factions opinions on the subject at hand as well.

  7. f8te on

    Indeed. “The vast, vast, vast majority, about 100%, of dispensaries in Los Angeles County and the city are operating illegally, they are dealing marijuana illegally, according to our theory,” he said. “The time is right to deal with this problem.”

    According to logical theory, law enforcement should try to move beyond their “theory” and get some fuckin fact before you make idiotic statements like, “The time is right to deal with this problem.” Why is now the right time. Because you petro chemical/pharmeceutical owners are going waa waa because the jig is up on all your LIES!!!

    You fukkin people in unyforms are the worst kind of liar assholes on the fucking earth. I dont know what planet you spawned from, but its not earth.

    Cops never help anyone outta anything. They are there to protect the established order and nothing else. Pretorian guards of the overlords. Way to go guys!! Thumbs up on your pathetic servitude and lack of critical thinking skills. “My boss mommy the gubment thinks for me! Im a hero, and I know it.”

  8. Anonymous on

    What do we have to do to get through to these brain dead assholes we want our Cannabis and nothing they do is going to stop us.

  9. Tracy on

    No wonder that little was missing for 18 years dumb ass cops

  10. one12alpha on

    This is total nonsense. For one they are going on the “theory” that “about 100%” are operating illegally. Do people need to be harassed based on speculation? Sounds like a witch hunt to me… Instead of raiding and jailing everyone and clogging up the courts, why not audit them? A legit business would keep close record of expenditures and income…income that they’re all to happy to tax by the way.

    And who the F#*K are these people to question a persons illness? There are MANY MANY medical uses for marijuana. Some of which are totally subjective(no visible or testable symptoms), like pain or depression. If the doctor chooses to treat his patients with marijuana (instead of pills), and the patient agrees, where’s the problem? We give doctors a degree of trust for a reason, because they went to school for medicine. We’ve allowed doctors to perform all kinds of treatments in the past, that now are realized to be ineffective and/or dangerous, based on this trust…blood letting, x-ray treatments, pockets full of garlic, etc. When they came to the conclusion that it didn’t work, they stopped. Whats different now? I dont think chemo therepy is safe or effective, but if that’s what the doctor orders…

    Just as we once gave police a degree of trust to use good judgment in enforcing the law. If a cop shoots someone, we expect/trust they had a good reason. Maybe we should take their guns, night sticks, tazers, and pepper spray away. They have certainly shown a lack of good judgment in using them these last few decades. And they’ve cause a hell of a lot more harm than doctors prescribing marijuana to AGREEING patients.

    Unless you got an MD, you got no place in questioning illness, or determining treatment. Even if you do have an MD, you have no place questioning a persons illness without reviewing the patients case. This is the one thing that really irks me about the medical marijuana situation.

    The worlds governments are quickly losing their sovereignty due to crap like this. They squeeze harder, they lose more. Sooner or later, either everyone will be in prison, or they will revolt. Give it time – the actions of the US govt will be met with violence on American soil, by American citizens. It could be over the marijuana, or it could be something else, we’ll see when/if it comes.

  11. Anonymous on

    Every time i read this shit like this, i always ask
    myself “all this over a fucking plant, who the hell
    are these people to say that plant can exist but
    the cannabis plant cannot, who the hell are you?” We Inhabit
    this planet, we do not own it.
    Fuck this Legal Mafia we call the us government.

  12. stu on

    To me, this is just another example of the USA’s obsession for turning ordinary people into criminals. Those new jails they’re building will be getting a heavy workout.

  13. Anonymous on

    California politicians complain about having no money for education and paying existing debts but always seem to have plenty of money to chase, prosecute, and imprison marijuana users.