By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
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By Dennis Romero
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.
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.”