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L.A. Medical-Pot Shops Peddle to LAUSD Pupils 

As kids flood weed outlets, Ramon Cortines admits there's no plan

Wednesday, Nov 4 2009
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Los Angeles City Hall is thrashing around as the City Council and mayor belatedly try to control a pot-shop explosion they ignited, which has spawned dozens of freewheeling weed emporiums near public schools. The Los Angeles school board’s response? Nada.

That’s what the Los Angeles Unified School District has done to stop kids from trekking a short distance from Fairfax, Hollywood and other high schools and middle schools to score buds at unregulated neighborhood pot shops that have opened, often in the same block as schools or very nearby.

The LAUSD school board and Superintendent Ramon Cortines have held no meetings about the impact on kids, have no idea how many children are turning to the flood of easy weed, have not tried to assess the money the dispensaries are making off healthy kids, and have not trained faculty and administrators in how to deal with ever-younger stoned students.

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY FRED NOLAND
  • Illustration by Fred Noland

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Now, following routine questions from L.A. Weekly, some school board members are pledging to deal with it.

The lack of interest from LAUSD’s top officials seems unlikely to help the district — already hammered by high dropout rates and intense competition from charter schools — to win back parents. Scott McNeely, of the Pico Neighborhood Council, complained to the City Council last summer when he heard about 17 dispensaries within a mile and a half of his home, three near elementary schools. “It’s a little discomforting when parents try to walk their kids to and from school and the kids smell marijuana smoke in the air,” he says. “It’s long past time for the LAUSD to weigh in on this issue and pressure the City Council, work with the City Council, just as we are doing. ... The school board needs to raise a little hell.”

Some school board members believe the weed-and-kids situation is out of control. “After school you can see students stopping at the dispensary before going home,” says school board member Tamar Galatzan. “That’s unacceptable.”

The first sign that kids were being affected by the medical-pot explosion — and even directly targeted — arose at Grant High School in Van Nuys. It was the end of summer 2006 and time, apparently, to get back to the San Fernando Valley’s version of the three R’s: reading, writing and rolling joints.

On August 10 of that year, Van Nuys police found that a nearby marijuana dispensary, Pacific Support Services, had left fliers on cars in the Grant High School student parking lot. The fliers were emblazoned with the iconic, three-leaf marijuana bud, and underneath was a friendly message:

“It is still legal to own, grow and smoke marijuana as long as you do it properly. Qualification is simple and our experienced physicians are more than happy to help you,” it informed students, who probably had no idea California law gives seriously ill patients the right to smoke pot if they merely obtain a doctor’s verbal recommendation.

The flier language was directly aimed at those who might be tempted to spend their burgers-and-fries money: “$15 off with this flier. ... If you do not qualify for a recommendation your visit is free.”

In other cities, the targeting of an academically struggling school like Grant High and its mostly minority, mostly working-class students, which resulted in a Los Angeles Daily News story, might have prompted school leaders to act. But it just floated right over the heads of the seven LAUSD board members.

“We had so many other things going on that I guess we just plain missed it,” says school board member Marguerite LaMotte, who represents much of South Los Angeles. “I can’t speak for the rest of the board but myself, I was more worried about the gangs, the liquor stores and all the other problems in my district. ... There’s so much going on in my district.”

Since then, neither the school board nor Cortines has done anything — no new policies, rules or special teacher or principal training — to protect children from unregulated pot dispensaries.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the City Council today have no idea how many pot stores exist, where they are, where they are getting their pot, who is financing them or where the huge profits are going. The exact number of stores in L.A. is a highly fluid calculation, with dispensaries opening and closing daily and dozens filling out paperwork but never switching on the lights. On paper, there are more than 1,000; hundreds are believed to be actually operating.

An analysis by the Los Angeles Times showed that at least 240 of the 1,000 dispensaries are within 1,000 feet of a school, park or library. Teenagers can be seen heading into them after school lets out in Hollywood, Fairfax, Northridge, the San Fernando Valley, Wilshire District and other areas.

According to both police and residents, many medicinal-marijuana shops are covertly targeting healthy kids as young as 14 through street contacts who urge students to “get your card.”

Yet the City Council and school board have yet to open a meaningful dialogue. “On issues that impact LAUSD, there’s been a lack of formal or even informal communication and coordination between the [City] Council and the school board,” says board member Galatzan. “This is the latest manifestation of that problem.”

Galatzan, an attorney who works for the L.A. City Attorney’s Office dealing with street-level crime, supports a tough ordinance proposed by her boss, City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, which among other things would ban dispensaries within 1,000 feet of a school.

The Los Angeles City Council failed for years to adopt state-required local medical-marijuana regulations that other cities, including San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley, long ago debated and approved.

Those three politically liberal cities cracked down on pot profiteers while adopting rules that allow the ill to easily obtain weed. The City Council here, gridlocked and unable to decide what to do, instead adopted a series of moratoriums — and then missed the state’s legal deadline for acting. Now the council is unhappy with Trutanich’s plan, and is looking at its options once again.

At the time of the Grant High incident, Los Angeles dispensaries had mushroomed from just four in 2005 to dozens in 2006. That was before the great medical-bud flood of the last 18 months.

LaMotte and recently elected school board member Steve Zimmer say they too support a 1,000-foot restriction. Zimmer, however, says his is a narrow endorsement of that one provision. He has problems with the rest of Trutanich’s ordinance, which bans the selling of pot over the counter and profiting from it. Zimmer particularly objects to calls to shut down the existing pot stores.

“I support the 1,000-feet restriction because I believe in creating ‘safe passages’ for our students to travel to and from school,” Zimmer says. “But I also support medical marijuana, and I think Trutanich and [Steve] Cooley are focused too much on suppression and not enough on harm reduction.”

Zimmer insists, “They won’t get one student to stop smoking weed by shutting down the dispensaries.”

Frank Sheftel, an advocate of the medical-marijuana movement and co-founder of the Toluca Lake Collective, a medicinal-pot outlet, favors a restriction of 600 feet, as with liquor stores and pharmacies. “Why create a different set of standards for this industry?” he asks.

But Galatzan notes that pharmacies require written physician prescriptions — not verbal recommendations, as with medical pot — and are so heavily regulated that no L.A. schoolchildren can score drugs at pharmacies. Moreover, liquor stores operate under strict laws forcing them to check age and I.D. Pot stores “are totally different from liquor stores, where kids are not allowed, because minors are [being] allowed into dispensaries,” Galatzan says.

David Berger, a special assistant to Trutanich, tells the Weekly that at least two police investigations are under way involving students and medical marijuana. One stems from a community complaint about a dispensary whose “stoned people” hang out next to a Lexington Avenue elementary school. The other is in Venice, where a pot store opened directly across from one public school and down the block from another. Berger says, “LAPD is documenting all this stuff for us now.”

Contact the writer at paulteetor@verizon.net.

Reach the writer at paulteetor@verizon.net

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