Los Angeles' medical-weed scene: How not to regulate dispensaries

Colorado politicians are delving head first into the state's medical-marijuana conundrum, developing statewide regulation bills and counter bills, not to mention hammering out municipal rules city by city. That's a good thing, since the last thing we want is for any of our communities to turn out like the pot boondoggle that is Los Angeles.

L.A. Weekly, a newspaper owned by Westword's parent company, recently published a lengthy exposé on the city's medical marijuana rules -- or, more accurately, its lack thereof.

In 2007, Los Angeles City Council passed a moratorium on new pot dispensaries, so it could figure out how to regulate the businesses, 186 of which had opened in a rush before the city weighed in. But many dispensaries continued to open thanks to a municipal loophole that allowed them to set up shop if they claimed a fiscal "hardship." By the Weekly's count, more than 400 dispensaries have now opened since the moratorium. Talk about a leaky sieve.

How did this happen? Neither Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa nor city councilmembers seemed eager to take action -- and according to Weekly, many of them were deferring to an influential marijuana expert named Don Duncan, co-founder of Americans for Safe Access and owner of a pot collective in West Hollywood. Assuming Duncan was just a volunteer pot advocate, city officials let him join an internal pot-policy working group, secured him a City Hall parking space and let him edit a city council press release. But Duncan also had ties to Harborside Health Center, a powerful dispensary in Oakland, California -- a fact that Westword revealed several months ago.

As we reported in the September story "Ganjapreneurs are Cashing in on Colorado's Booming Medical Pot Business," Duncan had stopped by Denver recently to help open a potential high-end dispensary called Local Product -- and he did so as a partner in Harborside Management Consultants, a new offshoot of Harborside that branded itself the "A-Team of medical cannabis." Thanks to that info, the Los Angeles City Attorney's office says it'll be investigating Duncan.

Denver City Councilman Charlie Brown took an undercover tour of L.A.'s dispensary scene last month -- and what he saw inspired him to push for a new city ordinance regulating medical marijuana dispensaries in this city. "It's just ridiculous," he says. "We don't want to become another L.A."

Brown will be discussing his proposal at 9:15 a.m. on December 16 at council's next safety committee meeting.

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner