With their approval of Proposition D in 2013, Los Angeles voters essentially said there should only be about 135 medical marijuana shops in town. But today experts estimate there are more than 1,500 — the vast majority illegal.

The preponderance of choices can have medical patients perplexed: Which is legal and which is just a fly-by-night operation? In 2015 we used the state's Public Records Act to request that the L.A. City Attorney's Office give us its list of compliant shops. We wanted readers to be able to walk into a shop knowing it's legit. But the idea was a no-go. The office refused, arguing that, even though it had released such a list two years earlier, any such document was “protected attorney work product.” And so, shopping for weed has been a crap shoot.

This week another arm of City Hall, the L.A. City Controller, issued a map of city-recognized dispensaries anyway. On it, patients can find 139 compliant shops. Those dispensaries are somewhat legit under an ordinance passed by the council last year that says only shops recognized under voter-approved Proposition D should be allowed to obtain business tax registration certificates (BTRCs). Proposition D granted 135 or so shops “limited legal immunity” from prosecution.

In a statement, city controller Ron Galperin said his map is intended to fulfill consumers' need to find legitimate marijuana retailers. “Businesses that ignore the rules and don’t pay taxes should be shut down, and people should not be buying from them,” he said.

Indeed, many dispensaries have continued to use BTRC tax documents as “permits” even though they are not. Last year, the City Council voted to stop issuing BTRCs to non-Proposition D-compliant shops by March 31 of that year. But the controller's map still shows 756 marijuana storefronts with the tax documents.

A new city map shows the core of L.A.'s bud scene.; Credit: City of Los Angeles

A new city map shows the core of L.A.'s bud scene.; Credit: City of Los Angeles

It's not clear why. A spokesman for the controller said that by Jan. 1, only 139 shops will have BTRCs. The City Attorney's Office did not respond to our request for comment. The Office of Finance says those figures represent 2016. Not all those 756, despite having tax certificates, were actually paying taxes, either, according to city data. “The map also shows 563 dispensaries against which the L.A. City Attorney’s Office has filed criminal cases,” according to the controller's office.

“Unfortunately, with regulation right at our doorstep, we've had very spotty compliance with current regulations and not enough enforcement,” Galperin said via email. “There's also a great opportunity for tax collection if we do it right.”

Galperin sent a letter to the City Council with recommendations on how, with better regulation and oversight, the city could see $50 million in marijuana tax revenues in 2018. He recommends legalizing delivery services, which were outlawed under Proposition D. Voters in March approved Measure M, which could double the number of legit dispensaries in town and provide a pathway for legal cultivation, production, delivery and possibly even recreational sales.

Even with City Hall pot shop licensing, expected under Measure M, the City Attorney's Office and the Los Angeles Police Department would have a lot of work to do to get rid of more than 1,000 rogue shops. “The bottom line with all of this is that too many dispensaries represent themselves as being legally compliant, but we know that's absolutely not the case,” Galperin said. “We need to enforce our laws.”

The controller says shops that don't pay taxes and that have been targeted by City Attorney civil suits simply shouldn't be operating as Los Angeles anticipates permitting and recreational pot in 2017. “Too many of these businesses have been operating under the legal radar,” he said. “This has been a mess from a legal point of view for some time now — with conflicts between and uncertainty over both federal and state laws. We now have an opportunity to get this right.”

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