In 2013 the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office released a list of the medical marijuana dispensaries that consider themselves to be immune from law enforcement under a law, Proposition D, approved by voters that year.
The list included 134 weed sellers it described as “registered under ICO.” The shops often call themselves “pre-ICO” for Sept. 14, 2007's Interim Control Ordinance, a law that limited the number of dispensaries in town to those already open and registered.
Proposition D “grants a limited immunity from enforcement to medical marijuana businesses that do not violate specified restrictions,” according to its language. At the time 135 shops were believed to be qualified for such immunity.
Some have closed their doors. Others were shut down by authorities because they didn't comply with all the rules. Many have moved in order to maintain a prescribed distance from schools, parks, churches and the like. Others have multiplied like franchises, even though the law doesn't really allow it.
Since then the number of pre-ICO shops has fluctuated, with City Attorney's officials telling us there were 125 and then 130. So we asked, under the California Public Records Act, for the office's latest list of pre-ICO dispensaries.
We were denied.
The City Attorney's Office is afraid that re-publication of an updated list would “confer some sort of legality to these businesses, which would be confusing to the public,” in the words of spokesman Rob Wilcox.
Of course, how information would be interpreted is not really a reason to deny public records, especially a document that's already been published for taxpayer consumption. So then the City Attorney's Office went one step further in denying our request. Wilcox:
To eliminate any confusion as to the significance of the list, it was removed [from the City Attorney's website], and any updated list in the possession of our office is exempt from release under Government Code Section 6254(k) because it is protected attorney work product.
City prosecutors are apparently arguing here that at least some dispensaries on its list are of dubious legality and could be under criminal investigation, which could hypothetically be shielded from public scrutiny.
Indeed, the City Attorney's stance has been one of minimal tolerance for pre-ICO shops, despite the vote of the people. When we first asked for the list, Wilcox reiterated the office's view that there are no legit pot shops in Los Angeles.
“There is no such thing as a compliant dispensary,” he said, “but there are approximately 130 that may qualify for limited immunity.”
Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said, “There's no reason to keep it [the list of those businesses] a secret.” He said all the City Attorney's Office would have to do in order to protect the integrity of any investigations is write a sentence explaining that any businesses on the list are not necessarily immune from prosecution.
Scheer said he would submit a Public Records Act request of his own asking the City Attorney's Office for its latest list. Wish him luck: Don't you think the city's consumers of medical marijuana have a right to know which retailers were blessed by voters? Or should patients just roll the dice and hope for the best when it comes to their health?
To be fair, the number of pot shops in Los Angeles is a political hot potato, and elected City Attorney Mike Feuer has had to walk a fine line between appeasing patients' rights activists and pleasing NIMBYs who just can't stand the smell of weed in their neighborhoods.
NIMBYs have a right to complain.
In April Feuer said that 503 illegal shops had been shut down as part of his office's mandate to pare the number down to fewer than 135. City prosecutors said there were about 415 dispensaries left.
But the city's Office of Finance has said there are 1,122 “active” marijuana businesses that have registered to pay taxes. The City Attorney's Office says vast numbers of those, however, have closed and are simply still on the books as vestiges of days past.
Then the state Board of Equalization released a statement in summer that said there are 935 “active cannabis businesses in the city of Los Angeles.”
On top of that, Yami Bolanos, president and founder of the Greater Los Angeles Collective Alliance, a group that represents a core number of pre-ICO shops, told us recently that she believes there are more like 1,500 collectives in the city, the vast majority being illicit.
All this, of course, doesn't bode well for a City Attorney's Office attempting to wrap its arms around this green gorilla.
In an interview with us last year, after his office published its list of pre-ICO collectives, Feuer said, “We don't have a list.
“I support the idea that people in pain should have access to medical marijuana,” he said. “Voters want access, but they didn't want to see dispensaries too close to schools. I know there is this balance to be struck. I think there's a way to grapple with the issues of medical marijuana that will capture everybody's agreement.”
But are city prosecutors being fair in their exacting interpretation of the law? It's hard to imagine that proponents of Proposition D envisioned a world in which City Attorney's officials are continually saying that “there is no such thing as a compliant dispensary.”
We were there. Having pre-ICO stores being constantly described as illegitimate wasn't the intention at all. And to deny the public's right to see a taxpayer-funded document listing L.A.'s pre-ICO shops is almost like denying their existence.
Perhaps the people need to have another vote.