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Trutanich Probes Pot Backer Duncan 

Having done little homework, the City Council prepares to approve a medical pot law

Wednesday, Dec 2 2009
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Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen Trutanich is investigating medical pot activist Don Duncan, who L.A. Weekly reported has frequently met in private with city politicians and policy makers, after learning that Duncan failed to disclose his role in the for-profit Harborside Management Associates, which BusinessWeek reports is planning the nation’s first franchised pot chain.

Special Assistant City Attorney David Berger and City Council President Eric Garcetti confirmed that until the Weekly’s queries about Duncan last week, they both believed he was a volunteer fighting for medical rights and were unaware of his work for Harborside, a politically connected Bay Area medical marijuana consultancy business. Trutanich’s ethics division is conducting the investigation.

“I understood he was merely a volunteer representative for Americans for Safe Access,” Berger writes in an e-mail to the Weekly. In light of emerging information, “I have, accordingly, asked [the city attorney’s] ethics division to advise me on whether any issues arise” from Duncan’s relationship with the for-profit Harborside.

click to enlarge GREGORY BOJORQUEZ - At L.A. City Hall, Richard Eastman (center), a longtime AIDS and medical marijuana activist, listens to debate over the city’s proposed pot law.
  • Gregory Bojorquez
  • At L.A. City Hall, Richard Eastman (center), a longtime AIDS and medical marijuana activist, listens to debate over the city’s proposed pot law.

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In September, Denver Westword, a newspaper owned by L.A. Weekly’s parent company, reported that Duncan went to Denver for Harborside to tout a new medical weed store called “Local Product.” Duncan operates a busy dispensary in West Hollywood, where city officials concede they have not tried to determine if he is making a profit.

Until the Weekly’s investigative report last week, Los Angeles officials were unaware even of the number and locations of pot outlets operating in Los Angeles. That number is 545, the Weekly has determined. The locations have been published on the Weekly Web site.

The paper’s two-month investigation of City Hall’s handling of medical marijuana dispensaries (“L.A.’s Medical Weed Wars: How the potheads outwitted Antonio Villaraigosa and the Los Angeles City Council,” November 23, 2009) found that political leaders had failed to deal with one of the most controversial quality-of-life issues to face L.A. in years.

The investigation found that slightly more than 400 nonpermitted medical pot shops — claiming a fiscal “hardship” — used a loophole to open in Los Angeles during a failed city moratorium. That number is on top of the 142 dispensaries still remaining from the original 186 that opened in a flurry before the moratorium, the Weekly determined.

Berger says that Trutanich’s office is completing a report on the pre-moratorium weed outlets for the City Council, using the Weekly’s database as “source material” to help understand the scope of the medical pot industry here. The Villaraigosa administration failed to create its own database of the proliferating pot stores.

As the Weekly showed, for years elected officials were highly deferential to Duncan, even as the number of outlets mushroomed. City Councilman Dennis Zine let Duncan edit one of Zine’s press releases on medical pot and secured him a City Hall parking space. Eastside Councilman Ed Reyes asked Duncan if there were any “deal breakers” that would displease Duncan in a proposed city law. Duncan was invited to join a secret working group of top city department employees, including the LAPD, which spent months drafting medical pot policy ideas. Neighborhood groups, business leaders, school officials and parents were shut out of that group.

Yet Duncan underwent no scrutiny by the city Ethics Commission. (Duncan says that, as of December 1, he had not been contacted by Trutanich’s ethics division, which is independent of the Ethics Commission.)

After the Weekly’s story appeared, Weedtracker.com, a site that features paid advertising from weed dispensaries, urged an ad boycott of the Weekly. “They shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds them,” the posting says. Dogpatch Media, a Sacramento marketing and advertising firm founded by Jon Furry that produces Weedtracker, sent a Tweet pushing for an ad boycott and complaining that the newspaper “has really been treating us badly.”

The City Council, meanwhile, abruptly canceled a December 2 hearing on its medical pot regulations after Carmen Trutanich strongly recommended that pot outlets be required to grow their weed on the premises — a way to ensure that pot stores no longer buy drugs from gangs, organized crime and other illegal sources. Activist Duncan, the City Hall insider who has long advocated over-the-counter sales of pot, quickly responded that “requirements for on-site cultivation of medicine should be removed.” The City Council will now try to adopt its long-delayed regulations next week.

Amid this continuing tug of war, it’s clear that the 15 council members still lack the basic planning and policy groundwork that generally occurs when they approve major laws involving land use and quality of life.

Councilman Reyes, chair of the council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee, last week disclosed that a zoning map — a crucial tool for deciding appropriate locations for pot outlets — is still far from completion by the city Planning Department. “At this point,” Reyes confesses, “we cannot show a map.”

The map would allow the city to more easily shut down nonpermitted pot shops in inappropriate areas, Reyes says. Lacking this basic zoning blueprint just when the council is moving toward adopting a law means “we’re really guessing,” Reyes says. “And we shouldn’t be guessing with people’s lives.”

But the zoning map isn’t the only missing piece. In a situation similar to City Hall’s “inspection program” for L.A.’s estimated 4,000 illegal billboards — a program still frozen in place after years of inaction — the council members, mayor’s office and city managers have spent virtually no time determining how to inspect medical pot stores to ensure that, as required by state law, dispensaries take no profit.

Reyes and Garcetti are only now, four years after the council first grappled with medical pot, suggesting that the Department of Building and Safety, Chief Legislative Analyst Gerry Miller and the LAPD devise a “proactive” inspection program — and they’re in no hurry, asking for a “report back” by March 2010.

“We have to be careful to not provide any loopholes,” Councilman Jose Huizar has warned — the very problem that has prevented City Hall’s inspection of billboards.

And as the Weekly also reported last week, Reyes and Garcetti failed to contact leaders of any major California cities where medical marijuana rules have prevented proliferation of weed outlets. Reyes instead asked local medical weed advocates how other big cities were handling things.

Council members Janice Hahn, Paul Koretz, Bill Rosendahl and Reyes have emerged as supporters of the most lax pot regulations. Koretz wants to allow pot stores within about 300 feet of schools — 500 feet with a 20 percent “deviation” — the least restrictive school buffer for any major California city. Hahn, meanwhile, argued that councilman Richard Alarcon’s suggestion of barring purportedly nonprofit weed stores from paying employees more than $100,000 a year is “not our business.”

Appearing to support tougher rules are Huizar, Greig Smith, Bernard Parks and Alarcon, who could not prevent a nonpermitted pot outlet from opening during the moratorium — in a storefront underneath his own Sylmar council district office at 13517 Hubbard St. Alarcon said last week with frustration, “The fact that there’s been a proliferation of these establishments cannot go unnoticed!”

Huizar has suggested a cap of about 70 pot dispensaries, which would, in effect, outlaw about 475 of those now operating.

Villaraigosa, who broke years of silence on medical pot hours after the Weekly’s November 23 story, has plainly stated that it is illegal for dispensaries to make any profit — the position also taken by Attorney General Jerry Brown.

But bowing to medical pot advocates, Garcetti backs less precise language that allows “cash contributions” and “reimbursements” — and may set up a showdown between Villaraigosa, Trutanich and the City Council.

Tibby Rothman contributed to this report.

Reach the writer at pmcdonald@laweekly.com

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