The LAPD's Devonshire Division has done a thorough job of closing the area's pot dispensaries. Legitimate medical marijuana patients are the ones to suffer for it.
Forget years of conflicting rules, hazy regulations, hard lines and soft bans.
An LAPD narcotics squad has made an end-run around the city's fumbling efforts to regulate medical marijuana, shutting down every dispensary in its San Fernando Valley division in a three-year campaign whose success just might signal the end of legal pot sales in Los Angeles.
The closure this week of Herbal Medicine Care in Chatsworth ended a string of Devonshire Division busts that netted 30 guns, $2 million in cash and nine kilos of cocaine, in addition to a ton of marijuana.
Seventy-four people were arrested, including several whose dispensaries were operating with the city's regulatory blessing.
"It was like a little private pogrom," said Joao Silverstein, whose CannaMed dispensary in Northridge was shut down in August by police.
"We fought for years to meet the requirements," he said. "Every hoop the city put in front of us, we jumped through like trained seals, with the belief that we were operating within the law. Legally."
But narcotics Det. Robert Holcomb contends that every dispensary in the city is engaged in illegal drug dealing.
The state law that legalized marijuana for medical use does not allow its retail sale, he said. Neither does the city ordinance that allows collectives to exist.
His team handled the operation like any other drug bust: Identify the target, conduct surveillance, make an undercover buy, arrest the sellers. They closed down 37 shops. Everyone arrested faces felony charges.
"I've been working narcotics for 25 years," Holcomb said. "It used to be, the hardest thing was to find the dealer. Now they put a big green cross on the door and advertise on the Internet."
More than 15 years have passed since California voters approved the Compassionate Use initiative that allows adults with a doctor's recommendation to possess and cultivate marijuana. It's hard to believe that its application is still such a legal muddle.
Los Angeles lawmakers spent years avoiding the issue, while hundreds of dispensaries cropped up, sometimes two or three on one block.
Two years ago, the City Council approved an ordinance that was supposed to shut most dispensaries down. It limits the number and favors those that have been around the longest. The owners would pay taxes, get business licenses and apply for building permits.
But that's been stalled by legal challenges; there are hundreds of dispensaries selling marijuana in L.A. now. The council is about to consider revoking those rules and adopting a temporary ban that would forbid dispensaries but let patients and caregivers grow their drugs.
"That would allow us to clear the deck and ask 'What is the right approach to allowing access to medical marijuana?'" said Councilman Jose Huizar, the ordinance sponsor, whose Eagle Rock district has been overrun by pot shops.
Local prosecutors have always taken a hard line: Any sale of marijuana to anyone is a crime.
But the crackdown in the Devonshire Division "has been particularly harsh," said attorney SaraLynn Mandel. Her clients have had their business assets seized and personal bank accounts blocked. Those who want to go to trial are being pressured by prosecutors to plead guilty, she said, or risk having proceedings dragged out.
"These are people who were adhering to what the city told them was acceptable," she said. "In Devonshire, they don't distinguish between people obeying the law and people who are not."
Councilman Mitchell Englander, whose district includes Devonshire, isn't bothered by that conflict. "Our political will was 'We don't want this in our community,' and if we can find any kind of law that says storefront sales are not allowed, we would use it to shut them down."
Holcomb said the raids have done their job, sweeping the northwest Valley clean of "cash and carry storefronts."
But the detective has discovered at community meetings that not every resident likes the process. "The ones that live around [dispensaries] love the fact that they're not plagued with these places anymore," he said. "But a lot of people are concerned about someone who is sick: How do they get their marijuana?"
That's been the problem all along. How do you balance that plague of proliferating shops with the rights of ailing patients?
I live in the Devonshire Division, and I recognize some of the places that Holcomb fingered as trouble spots, like the dispensary down the block from Granada Hills Charter High, "where somebody would go in and buy, and come out and deal to the kids waiting outside."
But I also support access to medical marijuana. I've been a card-carrying patient in the past.
And I feel for people like Sue, arrested behind the counter at CannaMed. She never sold me anything stronger than cannabis balm for my arthritic hands. She's not a criminal drug dealer, just a genial, middle-aged hippie who treated patients with kindness and respect.
"There are lots of us involved in this business who are not losers, not marginal characters who compromise the quality of society," CannaMed owner Silverstein said. "This is not just some recreational party.... We have resources for people who need help."
But Silverstein also expressed a bit of grudging gratitude; at least the raids wiped out big outlaw shops that gave a bad name to the industry. "I give [the LAPD] credit for one thing," he said. "They John Wayned it everywhere they went."
At the 2 AM Pharmacy in Canoga Park, which shares its lot with a strip club, Holcomb's team seized the most money the detective had ever seen — "$600,000 in cash." One of the operators was a guy Holcomb had arrested 20 years ago "with two kilos of cocaine," he said.
Councilman Englander suspects that sort of operation is less the exception than the rule.
"They're ripping off the people they're supposed to help. It's not the few that spoiled it for the most," he said. "It's the most that spoiled it for a few."
Officers in other parts of the city are taking lessons from Holcomb's crew. Marijuana advocates worry that could lead to wholesale shutdowns. Said attorney David Welch: "Every single storefront collective in this city would fall under that umbrella."
I wonder what that would mean for the patients I encountered at CannaMed. It's not so easy to grow your own when you're shaking from Parkinson's disease or in the midst of chemotherapy treatment.
This crusade treats their medication like our menace. And they're the folks the Compassionate Use Act is supposed to make life easier for.
Los Angeles Times
February 4, 2012