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Regulating Pot Shops: Why One Neighborhood Council President Took on the Cause

Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council President Michael Larsen reflects on his four-year struggle for supervision of medical marijuana dispensaries.

At 9 a.m. on Thursday, Aug. 30, medical marijuana advocates are expected to deliver a petition to the Los Angeles City Council signed by some 50,000 LA residents in an attempt to overturn an impending ban on pot storefronts and prompt a referendum on the issue in March. The ban is scheduled to be enforced Sept. 6—and events leading up to it have captivated Angelenos on both sides of the highly contested medical marijuana debate.

In an in-depth interview with Eagle Rock Patch editor Ajay Singh, President Michael Larsen looks back at his four-year battle to get some sort of regulation of marijuana dispensaries in Eagle Rock and the City of Los Angeles, which live in an "Alice in Wonderland reality," as he described it in a news conference in downtown City Hall last November. Excerpts:

Eagle Rock Patch: What do you think is going to happen in the run up to the City’s Sept. 6 deadline for medical marijuana dispensaries to close?

Michael Larsen: I’m hoping that the City will be sending out letters and following up with enforcement, but it remains to be seen what happens in the courts and if the pot advocates are able to tie up enforcement somehow, especially with their campaign to collect referendum signatures. If they’re able to get the required signatures, it will immediately put a stop to any enforcement, which is a big concern, I think, of a lot of community members. So we’re all waiting to see if they come up with the signatures or not.

What’s your view about the California Supreme Court’s dismissal last week of an appellate court ruling in the Pack v. City of Long Beach case, which has been used by several municipalities to suspend or ban the distribution of medical marijuana?

The California Supreme Court action was procedural not substantive. It changed nothing regarding the legality of the LA storefront ban or the question of federal preemption as it relates to LA authorizing stores. We still have to wait it out to get any real regulatory direction from the Supreme Court. It would be better for our representatives in Sacramento to do their jobs and create a workable statewide framework, but I haven't been able to even get [State Senator] Carol Liu or [Assemblymember] Anthony Portantino on the phone about this issue for years. It's a shame that they seem to want to bury their heads in the sand on this, and that seems to be par for the course with our current state lawmakers.

How long has it been since you took up the cause of shutting down medical marijuana dispensaries in Eagle Rock—and what’s it been like to pursue such a cause?

The cause has been to see regulation put through—not just to close them [dispensaries] down but to see them regulated, like any other business in Los Angeles is. It’s been more than four years since we [the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council] had a dispensary, Green Goddess, come to our Land Use Committee and show their paperwork and claim that they were legitimate and were able to open [a storefront]. They ended up opening, I think, in Venice, but that was when this whole thing blew up—the dispensaries started proliferating in LA to the point where they are now. The City had come out with an interim control ordinance and the dispensaries responded to that with what’s called a “hardship application”—a “hardship” exemption from the ordinance to ban them from opening. It was the stimulus for me and other people on the Council to do some research and see what was going on. Before then we didn’t really see very many dispensaries—there were three that were operating in Eagle Rock.

Generally, what’s been your objection to the dispensaries in Eagle Rock?

My biggest objection is to the unfairness of the process. You have mom-and-pop shop—or, as I like to say, the yogurt shop that take a year or two years to open. There are stores that are empty—people are paying rent on them and can’t open their small businesses because of all the hoops they have to jump through to do it legally with the City. And yet a pot shop can literally open up within hours of signing a lease. They have no regulation whatsoever. And there’s no enforcement—because there’s no regulation.

The only actual regulation on the state level for these places is that they can’t be within 600 feet of a school. There are no regulations at all in the City of LA. That’s what people don’t realize—they assume they [dispensaries] are being regulated. Most people assume, “oh it’s a business that’s operating—they’re open, there are a lot of them, I’ve heard of ’em, I see ’em, therefore somebody must be overseeing their operation, there must be rules in place, especially because they’re selling a powerful drug.” They’re wrong. It’s just not true. There’s nobody watching them, nobody guaranteeing that sick people are getting their safe medication. It’s a complete free-for-all for those businesses that sell marijuana in Los Angeles.

What about public safety or public nuisance concerns, which you have often talked about?

That’s a significant factor, too, for certain dispensaries. For instance, there are two dispensaries in Eagle Rock that, as a Neighborhood Council, we’ve seen a lot of complaints about as they impact on the immediate surrounding homes. They are very busy shops and they are what used to be AEC (American Eagle Collective, which the LAPD shut down in May on narcotics abatement charges, and which was subsequently replaced by Together For Change) and House of Kush.

We see complaints from people, both through e-mails and through personal interactions in which young families, mothers, are just desperate because of all the traffic, the customers, the nuisance of the smoking in yards, on sidewalks, in cars, double parking, blocking driveways, the loud music, reselling of marijuana in public, harassing behaviors toward any of the local residents who complain or confront them, lack of response from the LAPD about those nuisance issues—all those super typical nuisances people are familiar with.

Those have happened, not with all of them [dispensaries], but with some of them. And that’s the reason why it’s so important to have some sort of local regulation in place. Right now, we don’t have it. If there’s a bar that’s disturbing people with customers stumbling out, urinating, defecating, whatever, in the neighborhood, causing problems, there’s a process that the neighbors can go through to make an impact on that bar. They can get their liquor license removed through a process with the City. That process doesn’t exist with the pot shops.

You have often said that the LAPD says to people who complain about certain dispensaries that there’s nothing it can do. Why do you think the LAPD says that?

The LAPD has had a hands-off policy from the very beginning. I think their attitude has been that if the LA City Council cannot come up with basic regulations that we can enforce and follow, then we’re not going to try and come up with them ourselves. I think it’s an intentional policy by the LAPD to send a message to state lawmakers and city-level and county-level lawmakers that “we need direction from the law on this [matter] otherwise we’re not going to get into this.” And that’s because they [LAPD] can get sued personally.

This hands-off policy has permeated certain areas of the department. Devonshire’s one that’s not as affected by that, but the local guys on the beat have just been told, “don’t deal with medical marijuana.”

Look at what was going on at the [Eagle Rock] Music Festival last year. There was rampant marijuana use and plenty of police presence. Yet there was no enforcement of drug use laws. Not one arrest, not one citation. The only thing anybody has to do when confronted by police is to say, “I’m a patient and I’m using my medicine,” and they will back off.

Is it legal to smoke marijuana on sidewalks?

It’s legal to smoke it anywhere in public where it’s legal to smoke a cigarette. The only regulation—and this is from the state law—is that you cannot smoke marijuana within a thousand feet of a school.

So you can smoke marijuana outside somebody’s house?

Yes, anywhere you can [legally] smoke a cigarette.

Do you think the presence of dispensaries has led to an increase in crime?

There was an armed robbery at one of the dispensaries in Eagle Rock last year. I certainly think they bring in the wrong elements from surrounding communities that don’t have dispensaries. A lot of people, including LAPD, assert that a lot of crime—whether robberies or something else in the dispensaries or surrounding areas—doesn’t get reported because they don’t want LAPD involved in their stores.

Tim Ryder (head of Cannabis Clubs United With the Community) has said many times that he asks you for any evidence of increase in crime associated with dispensaries or even the nuisance value that they bring, but that so far he has not got any concrete evidence from either the Neighborhood Council or from . Why’s that?

A year and a half ago, Tim Ryder asked for what he thought was some sort of crime reports that I had. What I had, and what I gave him, were redacted e-mails from stakeholders, complaining about the various nuisances surrounding the dispensaries. At that point, we asked the City Attorney about it, and the City Attorney told us to give him [Ryder] any information without giving any names or contact information or identifying information. We compiled that information and gave it to him a year and a half ago. He seems to think that there is more or different information, but there’s not. He received that by e-mail three or four different times. I posted that information on [Eagle Rock] Patch a couple of times [in the Comments section] and we handed the information to him at one of the Council meetings.

Tim says that all he received was summaries of complaints—no actual statistics. What was your reason for not providing the content of the e-mails you received, without giving out any information that might identify the sender?

That was based on the advice of the City Attorney. Other than the content of the complaints, which is what we gave Tim, I don’t know what else he would be looking for. Writing style?

Do you flinch every time he calls you a prohibitionist or crusader?

No, I don’t. I giggle. Tim is a very theatrical, interesting, active stakeholder. I really appreciate the fact that he has found his passion and that he’s working hard at doing what he does, which happens to be unfortunately something I disagree with—promoting marijuana use and unregulated marijuana stores in the community. But at least he is active in the process, he comes to the [Neighborhood Council] meetings, he participates, and I respect that. I also understand that he’s playing a game, he’s playing a character, that he has an agenda. Calling me names or calling people names is part of the game he plays.

Has he ever told you that he smokes marijuana?

No, I don’t think he has. In fact, I think I’ve heard him deny it. But I honestly don’t care one way or another whether he does smoke marijuana or not. What he’s promoting publicly is what concerns me.

In its most recent newsletter, announced the result of a survey of its members about whether they support or oppose marijuana dispensaries. Only 16 people responded—11 against and five in support. What do you make of such a sluggish response from the most active voluntary organization in Eagle Rock, which has some 1,800 members?

I think it’s actually a pretty good response for a lot of community issues. The fact is that not a lot of people are very active in community issues. So, to get any response is pretty good. The other thing is that a lot of people are very concerned about coming out publicly on the issue of medical marijuana at all because they’re concerned about being painted as prohibitionists or as not compassionate toward sick people. These are the techniques or the rhetoric that the pot advocates use to their advantage. And I think it does have the effect of keeping people quiet about the issue because they don’t want to be put in that position of being called names.

How do you respond to your critics who say that you spend too much of the Neighborhood Council’s time focusing on medical marijuana? Do you think you do it at the expense of other issues?

I’d invite anybody who’s concerned about that to come to an ERNC meeting and see exactly how much time we spend [discussing marijuana]. I haven’t evaluated the actual time, but percentage-wise we maybe spend five or six percent of the Neighborhood Council’s time. I think we spend very little time on it, especially since it’s such a significant issue in Eagle Rock and the City of LA. This is an issue that I’ve been super-vocal on—it’s something that I’ve taken on and want to see through—but it’s definitely not the bulk of time the Council spends working on in Eagle Rock. It just happens to be a very high-profile issue.

Given the alleged nature of what goes on at dispensaries—or certain dispensaries—do you sometimes worry about your own personal safety or that of your family?

Yes, I do. I worry about that because there are no rules and regulations in place that require these places to have any kind of accountability. So, one can only assume that an unregulated drug market that has no enforcement is going to attract criminal elements and organized crime. I am concerned about that, but you’ve got to stand up for what’s right for the community and what you believe in.

Marcus November 18, 2012 at 09:40 PM
@John: I agree that legalization is only a matter of time, but surprised to see how California is not leading the charge. Yet again, self interests are going to delay any positive push here. Just look at who voted against Prop 37. Mainly people in the central valley who feared losing their jobs-incorrectly I might add. The same is here. Expect push back from local growers who fear the rise of companies like Monsanto taking over yet another aspect of Agriculture. With Legalization will have to come Regulation. Yes, no more free style retail that exists with the MMDs. That's a good thing. The strange thing will be seeing something being legal but society still expecting the same restrictions. i.e no smoking in bars, outside areas, at work etc. Still it will be legal.
John November 19, 2012 at 01:17 AM
Marcus, It makes sense to regulate second hand smoke. It also makes sense to consider that marijuana does not cause lung cancer, so in no case should it be more regulated than tobacco.
EagleRockMom November 19, 2012 at 01:33 AM
@John Marijuana smoke contains known carcinogens. Even NORML acknowledges this fact.
John November 19, 2012 at 02:56 AM
Hi ERM- Marijuana may contain carcinogens, but it doesn't cause lung cancer, and it has been shown to have potential to shrink cancerous tumors. The AMA, the California Medical Association, the University of California and many other scientific organizations have documented that alcohol and tobacco are at least 100 times more deadly than marijuana. Beer and Wine contain extremely high levels of nitrocamins which are otherwise considered cancer causing. Sugar causes cancer faster in humans than marijuana. It is widely accepted by the scientific community that compared to these substances, marijuana is almost harmless. Check out dpa.org for citations that substantiate my position. I am open to reviewing any ctredible source that proves me wrong, but I have researched this topic extensively. And encourage you to be open to the possibility that marijuana is demonized disproportionally to these other substances and to the risks and benefits of marijuana use. You would have to smoke a thousand pounds of marijuana in fifteen minutes to overdose. One bottle of vodka or aspirin consumed in one hour can kill you. Why is marijuana held to a higher standard?
John November 19, 2012 at 04:08 AM
ERM - Here are some facts: Compared to Twinkies, toxicity is virtually nonexistent in natural marijuana. The toxicity levels of cannabis compounds are estimated at 40,000, meaning that a subject would have to ingest 40,000 times the regular dose to induce death. “In layman’s terms,” according to The New England Journal of Medicine, ”a smoker would theoretically have to consume nearly 1,500 pounds of marijuana within about fifteen minutes to induce a lethal response.” [1] While that amount of consumption is certainly an impossible feat, in comparison, legal prescription medications cause thousands of deaths per year. [2] Common household drugs are much more lethal than marijuana. For instance, a lethal dose of caffeine is equal to about 100 cups of coffee. [3] In 1972, after reviewing the scientific evidence, the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse concluded that while marijuana was not entirely safe, its dangers had been grossly overstated. [4] Since then, researchers have conducted thousands of studies on humans, animals and cell cultures. None of those describe any findings dramatically different from those described by the National Commission in 1972. [5] In 2008, The Canadian Medical Association Journal published a review of research spanning 30 years, concluding that there are no serious adverse effects of cannabis use. Dan White shot Harvey Milk and George Muscone after consuming two twinkies and a 16 ounce coffee.

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