California has 482 cities and 58 counties, all with the power to govern their own medical marijuana industries. The methods they choose vary throughout the state. Some local governments have rules limiting the number of dispensaries and where they can open. Others passed ordinances banning all marijuana cultivation.
Recreational marijuana could be made legal next year if any of a dozen groups successfully gathers enough signatures to put it on the ballot.
"It's been the Wild West," said John Lee, who runs one of those groups, Americans for Policy Reform. "Each municipality is having to deal with it, and spend money and resources. The examples are significant."
In anticipation of possible legalization, California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom has said the state is looking at how to best regulate the industry.
“California can apply lessons from its own 20-year history of medical marijuana, including the lack of statewide regulation, the lessons learned from divergent approaches to local regulation and the best practices developed by responsible actors in the industry,” he said in a report this year.
The city of Los Angeles did not establish regulations until two years ago, 17 years after medical marijuana was legalized. In 2013, voters fed up with an unfettered industry, passed Proposition D, which banned medical dispensaries, except for those that were operating legally prior to 2007 and had already registered with the city.
The Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office has said just 134 medical marijuana dispensaries are eligible to operate legally in the city. Still, at least three out of four in the city are not, according to a survey by the University of California, Los Angeles, and News21 interviews with LAPD.
“Overnight, it was just one, and then the next thing you know there’s two, and then the next thing you know there’s three,” says LAPD Officer Rogelio Perez, summing up the outcome of the city’s medical marijuana enforcement.
UCLA researchers looked at the city’s medical marijuana dispensaries and found that the highest concentrations of dispensaries are in black and Hispanic neighborhoods with lower-than-average household incomes compared to Los Angeles at large.
According to UCLA’s research, in 2007 there were about two dispensaries in Wilmington and the neighborhoods of South L.A., Southeast L.A., San Pedro, Harbor Gateway. Now nearly 40 are operating in those communities alone.
By contrast, Pacific Palisades and Beverly Crest, two of the three wealthiest neighborhoods in Los Angeles had not a single dispensary open during the period covered by the UCLA study. As of 2014, six of the 10 highest-earning neighborhoods in Los Angeles had no dispensaries, according to a News21 analysis of the UCLA data.
“People living in these areas where there have been high densities of outlets, if they’re middle to higher-income, they have a lot more social capital,” said Bridget Freisthler, UCLA’s lead researcher. “So, they work together and they decide that this is a problem and they’re very vocal about it.
“Areas that are lower income and more disadvantaged generally don’t have the same amount of relationships with other people in the neighborhood, or the social capital there,” she said. “They’re much more concerned about daily living things, and so they might not be able to mobilize in the same way to get dispensaries out of their neighborhoods.”
The lack of citywide enforcement also leads to more crime, police say.
“We’ve seen, at a lot of levels, where the medical marijuana dispensaries are causing harm to the community that surrounds them,” LAPD’s Ballas explained.
PLAY Lt. Dennis Ballas of the Los Angeles Police Department said communities have been harmed by surrounding dispensaries. (Photo by Martin do Nascimento | News21)
Among other problems are robberies of dispensaries because they operate in cash. A dispensary security guard in San Bernardino was shot and killed in February. LAPD Detective Vincent Bancroft, has been involved in more than 100 investigations of medical marijuana dispensaries, the majority of which he says are related to organized crime or gang activity.
Even when dispensaries are shut down by the city, they reopen under different names and in new locations. Carlos Amaro, a business owner in Wilmington, said he was offered between $6,000 and $7,000 a month to rent out a piece of land to a grower.
“They’re on this corner, and he (the city attorney) closes them down today, and tomorrow they open on the other corner,” said Yamileth Bolanos, president and founder of the Greater Los Angeles Collective Alliance, an association of legal medical marijuana dispensaries in the city.
She was one of the chief proponents of greater city regulation of the medical marijuana industry leading up to Prop. D in 2013.
“The city attorney says he’s closed down 400 dispensaries since he took office, but he doesn’t talk about the 600 dispensaries that opened up behind the 400 that he closed,” said Bolanos.
In Los Angeles, all that’s needed to obtain medical marijuana is a doctor’s recommendation. And just 25 miles from Wilmington along L.A.’s Venice Beach, all it takes to get one is $40 and about two minutes.