Group Seeks to Fully Legalize L.A. Marijuana Dispensaries

They're the undocumented workers of the weed industry.

We're talking about Los Angeles medical marijuana dispensaries. They're not really legal. But they work hard for your well-being anyway.

Under 2013's voter-approved Proposition D, pot shops were outlawed in the city, but 135 around since at least 2007 were given limited immunity from prosecution.

Sixty-three of those businesses have recently banded together to form the UCBA (United Cannabis Business Alliance) Trade Association to influence the City Council and state legislators. 

A top goal is to get the city to fully legalize dispensaries, said Harvey Englander of government-relations consulting firm Englander Knabe & Allen, which represents UCBA.

The organization wants the city to issue permits, which will be required under state dispensary legislation, the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act (MMRSA), signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in December. The Legislature also is weighing an exemption to the permit requirement for L.A.

Under Proposition D, pot shops are specifically not permitted. MMRSA, long sought by shop operators who wanted state recognition and clear rules, requires that local jurisdictions provide permits. It also mandates state permits for shops.

The city has long had a love-hate relationship with dispensaries, with the City Attorney's Office often reminding even Proposition D–"compliant" storefronts that they're not really legal.

It's not clear if there is an appetite at City Hall for fully recognizing the enterprises.

"Our principal short-term goal is what we call Proposition D II," Englander says. "We want to turn our current situation into a permanent situation so we are in line with state law.

With that in mind, UCBA is lobbying the City Council to put a new proposition before voters that would amend D to allow permits and a limited number of new dispensaries. Proponents would like to see something on the ballot in March 2017, Englander said.

The idea, as he explained it, would be to keep the pot-shop cap at 135 but allow new dispensaries to open if and when others in the 135 club close.

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It's believed that there are fewer than 135 limited-immunity dispensaries in town today. City Attorney's officials have told us there have been as few as 125. 

The proposition also would seek to create "standardized rules for cultivation" that would be compliant with state law, Englander said. The language might contain a "financial incentive," such as increased tax revenues, for the city, he said.

"By working with the city, we hope to reduce the number of illegal dispensaries and increase tax revenues for the city while creating a structure for legal operators to remain open and in full compliance of the new state laws," said UCBA president Jerred Kiloh. "We intend to be an active participant in shaping cannabis laws in Los Angeles while at the same time giving the industry a public face and voice."

Contrary to earlier statements by representatives of the 135 saying they would seek to legalize delivery services, Englander said UCBA's stance is that those should remain illegal.

The group also wants "greater penalties for those [dispensaries] operating illegally now and in the future," he said.

UCBA estimates that there are more than 1,000 illegal dispensaries in Los Angeles. 

The state Board of Equalization said last summer that there are 935 "active cannabis businesses in the city of Los Angeles."

The City Attorney's Office, which says it has shut down more than 500 illicit dispensaries, refutes those numbers, saying there are about 415 pot shops operating in town.

In any case, if you're part of the group with limited legal immunity, you'd want to shut down the competition.

And if recreational legalization is passed by voters in November, you'd be in good shape to control that market too.

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