Will Legal Pot Shops Be Stymied by Local Politics?

The Emerald Exchange marijuana farmers marketEXPAND
The Emerald Exchange marijuana farmers market
Star Foreman/L.A. Weekly

Two efforts to fully legalize pot shops in L.A. are aiming for the March city ballot. Also on that ballot? A zoo of candidates, most of them long shots, running for City Council. Odd-numbered council districts 1 through 15 — a total of eight seats — are up for grabs.

These dozens of hyperlocal candidates are largely concerned about down-the-block issues and will bring supporters — often older, more conservative Angelenos — to the polls. And that has cannabis advocates concerned; the ballot also will be asking voters to essentially approve more pot shops ... down the block. The question is whether the national wave of weed legalization can overcome one of the strongest sentiments in Los Angeles politics: "Not In My Back Yard."

In the five or so years before voters approved 2013's Proposition D, which outlaws medical pot shops but allows about 135 or fewer to enjoy "limited legal immunity," neighborhood leaders were aghast at the number of marijuana collectives in their communities. Proposition D is about to become obsolete. New state legislation that takes effect in 2018 requires cities to issue permits to pot shops — including those selling recreational weed, ushered in under Proposition 64, which passed last month so there's been a scramble to undo Proposition D and fully legitimize those 135, and then some.

But the well from which those early anti-dispensary activists sprang is the same one that generally feeds candidates for City Council: neighborhood activist groups and their local advisory councils. And, at the same time, City Council hopefuls likely will be decrying other perceived threats to quality of life, including high-rises, traffic and lack of police on every corner. "Everybody wants marijuana to be legalized — but not next door to them," says Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University.

Experts say voters can express concern for their communities while also supporting the expansion of legal, well-managed marijuana businesses. California pot legalization passed on Nov. 8 with 56 percent in favor and 43 percent opposed, giving the cannabis crowd a minor mandate. "In principle the candidates and councilmembers are going to have to realize this city overwhelmingly supported this," Guerra says.

The professor and his team at LMU conducted exit polling of 2,800 city voters on Nov. 8. They found that Proposition 64, which legalizes possession of up to one ounce of weed for anyone 21 and older, enjoyed even greater support locally than statewide: 66 percent were in favor, 33 percent opposed.

Two factions of limited legal immunity medical marijuana collectives, represented by the United Cannabis Business Alliance (UCBA) and by the Southern California Coalition, are each backing separate proposals aimed at the March ballot. Both measures would provide permits and possibly expand the number of shops.

The UCBA is against legalizing delivery services such as Speed Weed; the coalition is in favor. The coalition is backing City Council president Herb Wesson's proposal to have City Hall put its own initiative on the March ballot. The group says it has influenced that effort, which could legalize as many as 495 shops, according to coalition co-founder Virgil Grant. That could be far more than what UCBA is aiming for. Its proposal would ultimately leave expansion beyond 135 shops to the City Council.

Representatives of both groups believe they can successfully fight against a NIMBY-dominated campaign season. "We stand in alignment with the city of L.A. in wanting to fix the problem" of too many illicit shops, Grant says. That might seem like a NIMBY stance, but it's actually a position that seeks to protect the Southern California Coalition's business interests.

Grant's pitch is this: There are possibly 1,500 fully illegal shops in the city, so Wesson's proposal would license legit stores, tax them and provide teeth for enforcement against underground storefronts. "We don't want to see rogue shops," Grant says.

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Harvey Englander of government-relations consulting firm Englander Knabe & Allen, which represents UCBA, has a similar argument: The group represents the good actors in the cannabis game, the ones even NIMBYs can support.

"We have found in all of our outreach that legal medical marijuana dispensaries that adhere to the rules and regulations are accepted in virtually every neighborhood in the city," he said via email. "UCBA member dispensaries are active participants in their communities, which includes active participation in food drives, school fundraising activities, local chambers of commerce and neighborhood councils."

It's worth noting that NIMBY-inspired measures were big losers on Nov. 8. City measure JJJ, which seeks to make it easier for developers to build apartments, and Measure M, a tax hike to continue the county's light-rail expansion, which has been used as a framework for advocates of high-rises and dense urban living, were approved by voters over the protests of NIMBY camps.

In any case, longtime City Hall observer Bill Boyarsky, a lecturer at USC's Annenberg School for Communications and a former Los Angeles Times city editor, says neighborhood activists can be in favor of marijuana and against too much development at the same time.

"I think there are two different emotions involved," he says. "I think there's not a strong appetite for development. I might want to go down to the corner and shop for marijuana, but I might not want that corner to be turned into a four-story retail and office development."


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