One morning this spring, about two dozen L.A. cops arrived at a large marijuana grow facility with a battering ram. Without knocking, and armed with what the business owner called “full-on assault rifles, like something from a movie,” the owner said police proceeded to bash on the entrance.
The facility's owner recounted the event to L.A. Weekly on condition of anonymity, for fear of attracting more law enforcement activity. The incident also was referenced at a May 19 City Council meeting by Seth Hilsabeck, a board member of the Southern California Coalition, a cannabis industry group.
The police arrived at 7:30 a.m., and only 15 of the 35 workers were on-site, according to the owner. Those who were present, including an apparently very pregnant woman and a man with cancer, were handcuffed and “literally paraded up and down the street” for at least 20 minutes before they were released with a court date and misdemeanor charges that could carry fines or jail time, the owner said. One employee, a security guard, was arrested because he had a gun, according to the owner, and then released without charge.
The police confiscated equipment and 3,000 plants that would be worth about $900,000 at harvest, the owner said. The power remains out at the facility and the staff are out of work.
California legalized recreational marijuana in November; it's now legal for adults to possess weed, and retail recreational pot sales are set to begin in 2018. In March, L.A. voters overwhelmingly passed Measure M, giving the city a mandate to regulate the world’s largest urban market for legal marijuana. But as the city finalizes rules for the industry, the Los Angeles Police Department continues to enforce laws that are still on the books, even though voters have rejected them.
“If there is service of a search warrant (raid) at the location, it means that a magistrate determined that probable cause existed to believe that a crime was committed,” according to a statement from LAPD.
On Thursday, City Council released its proposed rules for regulating the recreational marijuana business, beginning a 60-day public comment period that will be used to craft revisions to those rules.
Before Measure M passed, 2013's Proposition D granted limited immunity to 135 medical marijuana dispensaries in L.A., provided that they keep up with compliance requirements. Proposition D, which remains in effect until Measure M kicks in, does not offer protections to growers, edibles makers or any other kinds of cannabis businesses. The switch to Measure M is expected Jan. 1.
In a statement, LAPD says that it currently “conducts enforcement on locations that are not in compliance with Proposition D,” a category that includes both dispensaries that are not fully compliant and all the other kinds of cannabis businesses that have never been recognized by the city, including the commercial grow described above.
Adam Spiker, with marijuana advocacy group the Southern California Coalition, says that protection only for Proposition D–compliant dispensaries is not sustainable. "Where are they supposed to get legitimate product from?” he asks of those dispensaries. “Are we going to pretend that product is magically produced?”
It’s not clear if law enforcement activity against marijuana businesses has increased since Measure M passed on March 7. In a statement, LAPD said that since the force is decentralized, the information is not "immediately available." According to the Southern California Coalition, enforcement historically steps up during gap periods when new ordinances are under development.
As a result, some L.A. cannabis business owners are concerned about raids at a time when they expected to be preparing for full legalization and the state licensing process, which is expected to begin in 2018.
There’s also concern in the industry that the police are using excessive force. “Is it really worth it to send out 10 guys in riot gear when somebody didn’t put a piece of paper on a wall?” asks Michael Chernis, a longtime marijuana lawyer in Santa Monica and policy director of the Los Angeles Cannabis Task Force, an industry group.
In a separate statement, LAPD said: "Many arrests at illegal dispensaries have yielded firearms, assault weapons, and individuals who have violent criminal histories," justifying the use of body armor and helmets.
Some in the industry are divided on how to respond. The Southern California Coalition is pushing for the city to establish a registry so businesses that plan to apply for licenses will be protected from law enforcement actions in the current interim period. In a May motion to support a registry, City Councilman Paul Koretz wrote, “It was not the intention of [Proposition D’s authors] … to unreasonably punish businesses that act in good faith.”
However, Chernis says that if the registry advances, “We’re going to be immersed in litigation” about who gets to be on the registry and what kinds of protections it offers, when the focus should be on developing policy.
Another case illustrates how difficult it can be for a marijuana business to remain compliant.
Chris Abkarian and Hector Santa Cruz have operated the Greenhouse Herbal Center at the same location on Hollywood Boulevard in Thai Town since 2006. In 2013, it was one of the dispensaries that qualified for limited legal immunity under Proposition D.
The problem, Abkarian and Santa Cruz say, had started earlier, in 2011 when they needed to apply for another recognition known as a “temporary urgency ordinance.” Abkarian says that the day he planned to apply, his father had a stroke. By the following Monday, it was too late to obtain the TUO, he says.
Police raided the shop years later, just before Thanksgiving 2015. Santa Cruz says that if the TUO had been in order, the case would have been dropped or the raid wouldn't have happened. The shop reopened after a few days, but Abkarian and the corporation faced infractions for operating a noncompliant dispensary.
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Rather than take the case to court, they struck a deal to close their shop on June 11 until they’re recognized through a city registry or another mechanism.
“Monday will be hard,” Santa Cruz says.
The pair plans to continue paying rent in the hope they can hold out until they can get licensed or get on a pre-license registry from the city. Meanwhile, Santa Cruz says, “Delivery services are illegal but they run rampant,” and hundreds of illegal shops (that aren't even Proposition D–compliant) continue to operate as well.
"People think we must've done something wrong," Santa Cruz says. "It makes you feel gross."