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The Eruption Of Illegal Cannabis Dispensaries In L.A. Is A Problem Of The City’s Own Making

Marijuana is displayed at the Higher Path dispensary in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles, California, on December 27th, 2017. (Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

Despite owning one of the largest cannabis markets in the world, Los Angeles officials were ill-prepared for the legalization of recreational marijuana earlier this year. As a result, unlicensed dispensaries have been popping up throughout the city at a rapid clip, and now dwarf their licensed counterparts in number.

“We were being railroaded by kangaroo courts.”

That’s how one dispensary owner in Los Angeles described the city’s process of licensing medical marijuana dispensaries to the Los Angeles Times in 2009. “They were just denying them out of hand. Obviously their intent was just to close everyone down,” he continued. Nine years later, the state of selling weed in L.A. is both radically different, and exactly the same. Even after the statewide legalization of recreational cannabis in January of 2018, dispensary owners still complain of an inhospitable regulatory environment—one that they say makes it nearly impossible for most shops to operate legally.

Given Los Angeles’ status as one of the largest cannabis markets in the world (and California’s status as a trailblazer for medical marijuana), it should have been prepared when recreational weed was legalized in January. While the city’s smokers may have been ready for the transition, its byzantine and restrictive licensing system was not. As a result, unlicensed dispensaries have been popping up throughout the city at a rapid clip, and now dwarf their licensed counterparts in number.

Los Angeles’ online registry of licensed dispensaries lists only 169 authorized pot shops, but Curbed reports that an estimated 1,700 dispensaries operate across the city without a license. A glance at the site Weedmaps reveals dozens of dispensaries in downtown L.A., while the map on the city’s website shows only five. Unsurprisingly, crackdowns have ensued. As of September, the Los Angeles Police Department has charged 515 people with crimes in connection with raids on 105 allegedly unlicensed dispensaries, according to LAist. They face up to six months in prison and fines of a thousand dollars.

One reason for the rampancy of unlicensed dispensaries is that the city has made it next to impossible for any dispensaries that opened after 2007 to obtain a license. The difficulty is also the legacy of the city’s scattershot history of (mostly unsuccessful) whack-a-mole legislation that attempted to severely limit the number of dispensaries in L.A. Advocates say this legacy has unfairly benefited monied white people. “When I see the word ‘grandfathered,’ I think of poll taxes and literacy tests,” Lynne Lyman, the former state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, told Curbed. “And I know white people are getting something special.”

A confusing system of overlapping authorities—including the Department of Building and Safety, the Department of City Planning, the City Attorney’s Office, the LAPD, the Department of Cannabis Regulation, the City Council, the Mayor’s office, and 100 neighborhood councils across Los Angeles—also makes it difficult to legally run a dispensary. Each of these agencies and organizations have the ability to prevent a dispensary from legally selling marijuana.

This jurisdictional patchwork approach goes back to the early days of legal medicinal marijuana. In 1996, California legalized medicinal use of marijuana, without permitting it to be bought or sold; in effect, forcing its sanctioned patients to break the law. That incongruity set the stage for a decades-long series of grey markets that persist to this day in L.A. It wasn’t until 2003 that the state updated its laws, officially allowing collectives to grow weed for large groups of patients. According to Curbed, this was the hat-tip that dispensaries needed to feel welcome opening in L.A., and by 2006 there were 98 dubiously operating dispensaries in the city. By 2007, hundreds.

To Read The Rest Of This Article By Jack Denton on Pacific Standard

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Published: October 29, 2018

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