Eastside Pot Shops Got an Unwelcome Visit From the Cops
File photo by Enrique Manrique/L.A. Weekly

Eastside Pot Shops Got an Unwelcome Visit From the Cops

The county of Los Angeles, like many other local and regional governments across the state, has seen the light: Recreational marijuana legalization and new state regulations that could finally legitimize medical pot shops could amount to a green rush for both cannabis entrepreneurs and local tax coffers.

But the strategy for the L.A. County Board of Supervisors has been made perfectly clear: The existing community of marijuana retailers in areas under its jurisdiction needs to be wiped out before new stores can be legitimized next year with county licenses and regulations. It appears the plan was being carried out Wednesday as sheriff's deputies visited pot shops in East L.A., according to Jonatan Cvetko, co-founder of Angeles Emeralds, a group that formed in order to represent the interests of county collectives.

"We did not 'raid,'" sheriff's spokeswoman Nicole Nishida said via email. "We are checking and reviewing permits at various medical marijuana dispensaries in the unincorporated Los Angeles County area. There were a few arrests for various charges unrelated to the medical marijuana dispensary investigations."

Dispensaries were banned in unincorporated communities in 2011. There are no permits specifically for selling cannabis in these areas, which are governed directly by the county. East L.A., one of those communities without city status, has 16 open pot shops — the most of any of the five supervisoral districts in the county — according to a recent report from county counsel Mary C. Wickham. The report lays out a county "surge strategy" to shutter 26 dispensaries in the county unfazed by faraway raids and essentially unmoved by court actions.

On April 18, when the board failed to vote on funding the surge strategy — one idea was to use some of the money from a $25 million county settlement with Wells Fargo over its alleged creation of fake customer accounts — some cannabis advocates took as a strategic reprieve for targeted shops in the days leading to the unofficial marijuana holiday, 4/20. But the sheriff's department doesn't necessarily need special funding to enforce the law, and it can do so pretty much whenever it pleases.

At the time Supervisor Hilda Solis, whose district includes East L.A., said via email, "My No. 1 concern lies in the safety and well-being of my communities.

"I have heard from many of my constituents that unregulated dispensaries keep popping up in their own backyards and near schools," she said. "I understand that the voters have spoken when it comes to legalizing marijuana, but what is happening right now in East Los Angeles is out of control. My constituents are concerned and that’s why I called for today’s report back on enforcement. The reality is, marijuana is legal and I support regulation and a regulatory structure. Come January 2018, we need to make sure dispensaries are up to code and do not pose a public health threat to both consumers and communities.”

The board earlier this year voted to explore licensing, regulating and taxing pot businesses, including retailers, producers and cultivators, in the areas it controls. But it looks like county leaders want to start off with a clean sheet of paper.

Advocates like Angeles Emeralds say wiping out a community of knowledgeable business owners  — who would be legal if given the opportunity — is a mistake that deprives neighborhood patients of well-rooted collectives. "If they wipe out this community, where's the chance for good operators to come back into a regulated market?" Cvetko said earlier this spring.

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