IT’S HARD TO FIGURE who the real winner is in the West Hollywood City Council’s resolution that directs Sheriff’s deputies to give simple marijuana-possession cases the lowest possible priority. After all, it’s not like the law was being enforced anyway.
Could it be the cannabis lobbyists at the West Hollywood Civil Liberties Alliance, who forced the council to address their issue Monday night? Or was it the City Council itself, since it managed to pass a toothless resolution that placated the lobbying group, shelving a pro-legalization initiative that might have complicated council members’ re-election bids if placed on the same ballot?
Or, perhaps, no one — especially not the ailing people who are having trouble finding medical marijuana for less than $80.
Councilman John Duran — an attorney who has successfully defended the pro-medical-marijuana cause, is the resolution’s main proponent. He notes that the marijuana lobby only wanted a simple message of city support: “I asked them, ‘Are you going for something symbolic or substantive?’ They conceded for a symbolic victory.” The lobby’s motivation is to get momentum going for a much larger PR campaign that could one day put legalization of marijuana on a statewide ballot. “What they’re building toward is trying to get marijuana rescheduled from a schedule-1 to a schedule-2 or -3 drug,” says Duran. “They have to get communities under their belt before they do something like that.”
As it stands, the resolution threatens to disturb the gentlemanly relations that have long existed between West Hollywood and the Sheriff’s Department — which contracts with the city to provide police services — by verbalizing what has tended to be an unspoken understanding that marijuana offenses would get little attention. As far as state law goes, the new resolution only “contradicts [what the state] is saying, not what the state is doing,” says Duran. “All we did was put the truth out into the light.”
Scott Imler, co-author of Proposition 215, the 1996 ballot initiative that legalized medical marijuana in California, is the founder of the now-extinct Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center (LACRC) and pastor at Crescent Heights United Methodist Church. Imler worked closely with Sheriff Lee Baca on crafting the protocols after the proposition passed. Baca often commended Imler on his work and was swayed by the compassionate argument for marijuana as a pain remedy. “The issues of law, [if] they conflict with appropriate humanism, then we have to make some changes. That’s why I stand up in support of what Scott has been doing,” Baca told the Weekly in 1999. And Baca meant it. When the feds came to shut down Imler’s operation in October 2001, the Sheriff’s Department protested the action.
The new resolution, which breaks the tolerant silence, could bring increased scrutiny to the sheriff’s non-enforcement and in the end possibly backfire on the city by provoking the Sheriff’s Department into taking a definite position on enforcement.
Duran says WeHo shied away from passing something as strong as an ordinance because of a scar lingering from the federal government’s crackdown on Imler’s cannabis club. The city had loaned money to the club to help pay for its building. The city attempted to recover the money after the center was shut down but lost the case in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. “What the decision meant to us is that if we attempt to participate in marijuana issues we run the risk of the federal government coming down on us,” says Duran, who remains close with Imler. Duran acted as the attorney for the LACRC and defended medical-marijuana advocates after Prop. 215’s approval.
MOST OF THE OPPOSITION to the resolution came from a different group of marijuana proponents — those who have been fighting the fed’s refusal to recognize the state’s medical-marijuana law. Imler sees two distinct camps in the marijuana-legalization debate: one a noble nonprofit that goes by the book, the other a for-profit concern with less-than-noble intentions. After Imler’s co-op project (which was fully in compliance with state law) was shut down, seven cannabis clubs sprouted in its wake, having a deleterious and parasitic effect on the city. “The whole reason I authored Prop. 215 was to get the money out of those hands,” he says. The for-profit cannabis growers are often referred to by critics as “potrepeneurs” just trying to make a buck. Imler fears the increased privatization and permissiveness surrounding recreational marijuana use will cause communities to ban dispensaries altogether, medical or otherwise.
Most of all, Imler worries about what the resolution will mean for WeHo’s medical-marijuana patients, many of whom use the drug to treat pain associated with HIV and cancer. Imler decried how easy it has become nowadays “to buy a letter from a doc in the box,” and what he thinks will be an ever-increasing price and privatization of marijuana. He has been yelling about the imminent “Amsterdamnation” of WeHo. “AIDS and cancer patients still can’t get marijuana unless they’ve got $80 in their pocket,” Imler says. “It’s outrageous — a decade after Prop. 215 passed people still can’t get it when they need it.”
Councilmembers tried to come up with dignified reasons to back the resolution. Some cited the $80,000 cost of a special election. Others talked about an unnecessary division of the community between pro-sheriff and pro-marijuana factions and an arms race between the two sides, with competitive campaign fund-raising. But Imler doesn’t buy the argument that the resolution was called to avoid a special election. A measure could have made it into the already scheduled November or March city elections. The real reason the resolution had to come about, he says, is that no one wants to run on the same ballot as a marijuana initiative. Imler spoke out at Monday’s meeting, warning of the undue influence of cannabis clubs and their lobbying groups, “piggybacking” on the successes of the medical-marijuana movement. He’s troubled by the proliferation of cannabis clubs in WeHo: “I kind of feel like Dr. Frankenstein, who created a monster that couldn’t be controlled.”