The Los Angeles City Council moved forward Tuesday with developing new tactics aimed at closing down illegal marijuana businesses, including having them barricaded or padlocked, imposing escalating fines on their employees and shutting off utilities.
Although marijuana has been legal for recreational sales in California since Jan. 1, a license from both the state and city of Los Angeles is required to legally operate a dispensary in L.A., and hundreds of illegal businesses are believed to be operating in breach of the regulations.
City Attorney Mike Feuer announced last month that since January, his office, in coordination with the Los Angeles Police Department, has filed 120 criminal cases against 515 defendants associated with 105 illegal commercial cannabis locations across the city.
Closing down illegal pot shops has proven to be a challenge for the city; it often involves an undercover police operation and the use of other significant law enforcement resources.
There are 169 cannabis-related business currently operating legally in the city, according to the Department of Cannabis Regulation, but Los Angeles police Chief Michel Moore said last month that there are hundreds believed to be operating illegally.
Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who introduced two of the motions that were approved, noted in one of them that a significant number of the people charged by Feuer's office are employees of the businesses, not the owners.
The motion says that property and business owners should bear most of the responsibility for illegal cannabis operations and "not the people who work for them." Harris-Dawson has frequently talked about the negative impact the war on drugs has had on minority communities and has advocated a special cannabis sales tax to support neighborhoods affected by it.
Harris-Dawson's motion says the ability to criminally charge employees should still be an option, but it also proposes using the city's Administrative Citation Enforcement Program to discourage repeat offenses by creating escalating fines based on the number of times an individual has been cited.
The ACE program was approved by the City Council in 2014. It's meant to give police and Department of Animal Service officers a middle option for nuisance infractions and other quality-of-life concerns between issuing a warning and criminally citing an offender, as officers are often hesitant to take action that could trigger a misdemeanor citation for certain low-level offenses such as a loud party, having a dog off a leash or drinking in public.
ACE citations are not handled through the criminal courts but administratively through the city's ACE program. Fines can escalate up to $1,000 for a third offense under the ACE program.
During a meeting of the Rules, Elections and Intergovernmental Relations Committee earlier this month, Harris-Dawson pointed out that Measure M, which was approved by Los Angeles voters last year and outlines the city's regulations for the recreational sales industry, has a provision providing for landowners with unlicensed cannabis businesses on their property can be fined up to $20,000 per day. But he appeared frustrated on being informed by a representative of the City Attorney's Office that no one has yet been fined under that provision.
"That was a very, very important provision and one way to cause, at least voters in my district, to believe that a lot of these rogue shops would be dealt with," Harris-Dawson said.
He added, "I'm afraid that going forward, going into dispensaries and arresting people and catching them doing other things, that's not too much different than what we did in the war on drugs. We found people who were dealing drugs and we arrested them. And so that's an important component, but it's got to be joined with all of the things that the voters put forward in Measure M."
The second Harris-Dawson motion calls for the Department of Building and Safety to secure properties that fail to comply with administrative nuisance abatement decisions made by the Planning Commission and have them vacated. It adds that the city should establish a similar procedure for securing and closing illegal cannabis businesses that have been ordered to shut down, including barricading, padlocking, or fencing them.
Both of Harris-Dawson's unanimously approved motions direct the City Attorney's Office to draft ordinances that would implement the new policies. A third unanimously approved motion introduced by Councilwomen Nury Martinez and Monica Rodriguez directs city staff to report on the viability of implementing an ordinance that allows the city to disconnect or shut off utility service to unlicensed businesses.
Capt. Stephen Carmona, commanding officer of the LAPD's Gang and Narcotics Division, told the Rules, Elections and Intergovernmental Relations Committee that the department currently is focused on targeting shops where significant criminal activity is taking place and that the decision on what constitutes significant activity is up to the area commander.
Carmona added that only a handful of those arrested at illegal shops have had criminal felony charges filed against them and that those charged with misdemeanors appeared undeterred from working at or operating the business.
Council President Herb Wesson said at that meeting the city should consider forming a special task force dedicated to closing rogue shops and that a future committee meeting will likely focus on that topic.
"On enforcement, do we need to put together a special task force or something that really goes out, identifies these areas and tries to protect the businesses that are playing by the rules?" Wesson said.
A fourth motion that was also unanimously approved directs city staff to report on the feasibility of creating a special unit within the Department of Building and Safety that is responsible for inspecting cannabis businesses and verifying overall compliance with the city's rules and regulations for commercial cannabis activity.