L.A. Daze

The Los Angeles City Council, through many a protracted meeting, is inching closer to passing a medical marijuana ordinance that’s been four years in the making, and will revisit the issue at a special meeting on January 13.

Councilmembers have added restriction after restriction to the proposed ordinance in an effort to stem the Green Gold rush that has hit L.A. An estimated 545 medical marijuana collectives are currently operating, only 137 of them among the original 187 that were fully approved: the others got in under a “hardship exemption” the city has now closed.

The City Council is a polyglot, with White Westsiders, Blacks from Watts, and Hispanics from East L.A. all having their say. Westside Councilmember Bill Rosendahl put forth a proposal allowing 400 collectives to remain. A cap of 70, advanced most strongly by Councilmember Jose Huizar, was the one that carried, although the existing 137 would be allowed to remain open if they meet new requirements.

The ordinance as it stands will require 24-hour security cameras and allow police to view the security tapes, as well as patient and club records, at their whim. Only full patient medical records will be private. Huizar has proposed an amendment that would also collect data like age, gender, and medical conditions, mentioning that young males seem to dominate patient populations.

Interestingly, Huisar was born in Zacatecas, the part of Mexico once known for “Zacatecas purple.” According to the online Psychedelic Library, in the 1970s, “Among the best California varieties is one known as Big Sur Holy Weed, which was originally grown from seeds of Zacatecas Purple, a rare Mexican strain.” In the region’s capital city, a statue of Pancho Villa on horseback depicts his 1914 victory there.

In May 2009, a prison break occurred in Zacatecas, after which two escapees and 14 ½ tons of marijuana were discovered on property owned by one of Sen. Ricardo Monreal’s brothers. Monreal is a former governor of Zacatecas who represents the district in the Senate, and his brothers are also officeholders. Monreal claimed the marijuana was planted by his political rivals, notably current Governor Amalia Garcia, whose office publicized the find.

Governor Garcia was presented to the L.A. City Council in 2006 by Councilmember Huizar and Mayor Anthony Villaraigosa. In 2005, Huizar was elected to represent the district vacated by Villaraigosa when he ran for mayor. Villaraigosa has said he will not sign a medical marijuana ordinance that does not cap their number.

L.A. and Mexico have a long history of dickering over the cannabis trade. The production and distribution of marijuana has been an important source of income for Mexican peasants since the revolution of the 1860s, when other industries were disrupted, writes University of Southern California Professor Curtis Marez in his book Drug Wars. Drugs on the border “first appeared as a pressing U.S. problem during General John Pershing’s punitive expedition in pursuit of Pacho Villa (1916-17), when it was estimated that thousands of the general’s soldiers used narcotics while in Mexico,” Marez writes. This was a situation similar to Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt, which brought hashish to France.

Marez links the rise of the Red scare and LAPD police power with the marijuana laws and their exploitation in order to repress Mexican labor organizers and revolutionaries in the 1930s. A white judge named Charles W. Fricke, who was particularly hard on Mexicans, formed the Narcotic Research Association (NRA) and lectured to groups about the “epidemic” of marijuana use among Mexican laborers. The NRA was housed at the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce Building, along with The Hollywood Hussars, a paramilitary group formed to suppress communism. One member of the Hussars was actor Gary Cooper. Actress Lupe Velez, Cooper’s former girlfriend, was unjustly targeted as a communist and committed suicide.

In the way that opium laws targeting Chinese laborers were brought about over scary tales of white women in opium dens, the image of the lazy-yet-dangerous pot-smoking Mexican male was solidified at the time of the US Marijuana Tax Act hearings of 1937, when cannabis hemp was given the scary name “marijuana” and effectively banned.

Writer Nathanael West was working on his seminal Hollywood novel The Day of the Locust as the Tax Act hearings took place. In the book, the widely desired white female Faye Greener sleeps with a Mexican named Miguel just after she sings five verses of the Stuff Smith tune “If You’re a Viper.”

I’m the queen of everything

Got to get high before I can swing…

Sky is high and so am I

If you’re a Viper.

A Viper was a pot smoker, in Harlem slang. In another scene, Miguel and Faye dance provocatively to a rumba, which her white cowboy actor Earl is unable to join, so he flies into a rage and clubs Miguel over the head. The book ends in a riot, something that seems to keep happening in L.A.

The LAPD Police Academy has been in the news, after an officer was killed in a motorcycle accident after drinking at a bar on the academy campus. “Department officials are also taking a broader look at the long-running tradition of officers drinking at the academy,” wrote the Los Angeles Times.

L.A. county supervisor Don Knabe was quoted in the press calling it “a big victory for the county” when county sheriffs closed the Starlight 420 Center in the unincorporated county area near Whittier because it was too close to a McDonald’s playground. In 2007, Knabe was appointed by the White House to serve on the US Homeland Security Advisory Council, where he chairs the State and Local Officials Senior Advisory Committee. A Navy vet, Knabe just had an Exchange at the Long Beach Naval Base named after him. In San Diego, a 2008 sting operation that targeted medical marijuana delivery services was conducted on Navy property.

California NORML estimates that if Los Angeles closed its collectives, it would lose $36 – $74 million in tax revenues, plus 6,500 paying jobs. Full marijuana legalization could put $1.2 billion in California’s coffers yearly, with ancillary benefits up to $12-18 billion, according to a state analysis. Facing a budget crisis of unprecedented proportions, no longer can Los Angeles or California ignore the social and economic costs of marijuana prohibition.

Ellen Komp is an activist/writer who manages the website VeryImportantPotheads.com.