L.A.'s Medical-Weed Wars 

How the potheads outwitted Antonio Villaraigosa and the L.A. City Council

Monday, Nov 23 2009

(Second in a series about the highest paid city council and mayor in America.)

Editor’s note: Just hours after Mayor Villaraigosa was alerted to the investigative findings below, which were published online on November 23 at laweekly.com, the mayor ended years of silence on L.A.’s medical pot controversy and announced his opposition to illegal sales of weed, stating that dispensaries defying the law “should be closed down.” This story is updated from the original online, to reflect reaction by Villaraigosa and others to the L.A. Weekly's findings. See more complete notes at end of story.

Fourteen months ago, in a Los Angeles City Hall passageway just outside the Council Chamber, Yami Bolanos and her crew of medical marijuana dispensary advocates prepared for a day of lobbying. They hoped the City Council would finally begin drafting a basic ordinance to regulate the city’s wildly proliferating storefront weed businesses. Instead, she found the council members distracted and largely uninterested.

click to flip through (10) GREGORY BOJORQUEZ - Primo bud at LA JEMM Harvest Festival, a block from City Council President Eric Garcetti's district office
  • Gregory Bojorquez
  • Primo bud at LA JEMM Harvest Festival, a block from City Council President Eric Garcetti's district office

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“Almost a year had passed, and we hadn’t heard anything about an ordinance,” recalls Bolanos, the feisty 54-year-old operator of a Westside medical marijuana dispensary called PureLife Alternative Wellness Center. As luck would have it, she noticed City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo in the hallway, followed quickly by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — two officials capable of halting the buck-passing and pushing a set of workable medical pot rules so the seriously ill could easily obtain pot. The pot advocates were worried about medical weed profiteers who were spreading into L.A. neighborhoods, purposely opening next to public schools — and giving their movement a black eye.

When Bolanos introduced herself to Delgadillo as a pot advocate and asked him about his work on a medical marijuana ordinance, the city attorney lost his smile. He blurted out, “We’re working on it,” Bolanos recalls. He was referring to his push to prevent outright sales of medical pot and instead set up a collective system based on nonprofit sharing of weed.

Delgadillo believed his tough plan would stop the profiteers, gangsters and criminals who, LAPD has found, are moving into the city’s medical pot industry in the absence of local rules. But Delgadillo’s work was going nowhere. He was locked in a bitter pissing match with Eastside Councilman Ed Reyes, who had bottled the L.A. medical pot ordinance up in an obscure planning and land-use committee for years because Reyes wanted more lenient rules that allowed pot to be sold outright.

Delgadillo’s stricter plan was backed by LAPD Chief Bill Bratton, who in 2006 reported that medical pot sellers in L.A. were involved in “wanton and flagrant misuse” of medical weed that “demeans the spirit and intent” of the Compassionate Use Act and were out to “exploit the youth” — and should be stopped in favor of those really helping the sick.

As Delgadillo spoke, Bolanos noticed Villaraigosa coming her way. Here was the one guy with enough juice to end the bickering over pot that had spread to almost every major department in City Hall, from Building and Safety to Planning to LAPD. The mayor strode toward Bolanos with a bevy of aides, a photographer to record his day and former boxing champion Oscar De La Hoya, all there to celebrate Latino Heritage Day.

Villaraigosa had long known the problem was brewing — the Police Commission, which reports directly to the mayor, received Bratton’s 2006 report, and warned that weed dispensaries had exploded in number from four in 2005 to 98 in 2006, leading the City Council to adopt a moratorium in 2007.

Pointing to City Attorney Delgadillo, Bolanos demanded of the mayor, “When are you going to get this guy to do his job?” When Villaraigosa assured her that he supports medical marijuana, she offered a dismissive retort. The mayor responded by asking for a hug. As De La Hoya laughed, Bolanos declared, “You don’t deserve a hug!”

Today Los Angeles stands as the nation’s pot capital, a mecca for buying and selling the drug under the guise of the medicinal use initiative California voters approved 13 years ago.

The conditions are testament to a breakdown in basic governance unseen in any other major California city. Los Angeles officials cannot explain why they allowed the situation to get out of hand. They cannot even say how many pot storefronts are operating inside their city and who is supplying the drugs to those retailers, whether organized crime, gangs, illegal California growers or other sources.

The Weekly found proof that Mayor Villaraigosa has carefully and deliberately avoided the issue. At the same time, reporters found that the City Council has been guided by a politically influential medical pot seller — a man who wasn’t vetted to determine whether his pot sources and profits are illicit or legitimate. Leading council members listen to him while failing to consult neighborhood councils, the business community, school officials and others with serious concerns about the explosion of pot outlets.

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