Taking Pot Shots

An acquaintance of mine disclosed a rich history of LSD usage over a recent lunch.

“You can take drugs and not have them ruin your life,” he declared.

I could dismiss him as a deluded liberal hippie goofball, but he’s run a couple of large public bureaucracies in his career – including one in Los Angeles County. And since he likely has more than a nodding relationship with District Attorney Steve Cooley, I wonder if they’ve chatted about his recent vow to crack down on the marijuana dispensaries that have sprouted up throughout Los Angeles.

Cooley and his partner in crime busting, L.A. City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, have vowed to prosecute pot dispensary operators, particularly those who accept any money. Cooley says he will ignore any dispensary regulations promulgated by the L.A. City Council. When Cooley was recently on a local public affairs radio show – where he conveniently ducked taking callers’ questions – he claimed ignorance about SB 420, the seven-year-old state law that gives municipalities the right to regulate dispensaries.

Politically, I can understand Cooley and Trutanich’s position. The City Council has put the “it” in dithering when it’s come to drafting regulations – opening up loopholes that have permitted hundreds of dispensaries to appear over the past couple of years. And while both men are law enforcement figures, they’re also elected officials. Putting some deluded liberal hippie goofball pot peddlers in prison could position them for a run at higher offices.

L.A. County District Attorney Steve Cooley, left and L.A. City Attorney Carmen Trutanich have vowed to crack down on marijuana dispensaries. They appear wiling to trample on the state law governing their operation to score political points.

But as attorneys, they should know better. The way SB 420 was written, dispensary operators could have hundreds, if not thousands, of marijuana plants in their inventory. As non-profit cooperatives, the operators may be reimbursed for “reasonable” expenses to cultivate and/or procure marijuana for their customers. Given that the executive staffs of many local non-profits earn six-figure and sometimes seven-figure salaries, this will be a non-starter. I sense millions of dollars will soon go down the drain to prosecute cases that will result in few, if any, convictions.

Meanwhile, it is difficult to drive through the recessionary streets of L.A. and fail to notice the commercial “for rent” signs have grown thicker than a Humboldt County bumper crop. Many of the new businesses I do spot are marijuana dispensaries. Every one I’ve seen has been decidedly low-key, with subdued, almost chaste paintjobs and signage. One within walking distance of my house is so anonymous it’s drowned out by the neon lights from the corner dry cleaner. I risk sounding like a deluded pro-business conservative goofball, but those dispensaries are providing sorely needed jobs and cash flow to landlords. Given L.A.’s draconian gross receipts levy, they could probably provide some sorely needed local tax revenue as well.

But that’s not the story being told by Cooley and Trutanich. They regularly link the dispensaries to armed robberies and other violent crimes, although neither has provided specific crime-related data. Trutanich also claims the marijuana being sold contained dangerous pesticides, although he tends to lapse into a stoner-like haze when pressed about the specifics of the lab testing that’s been performed.

Meanwhile, the local media report allegations that pot dispensary patrons disturb the neighbors or sell to teens. According to a recent piece in the L.A. Weekly, which has relentlessly covered the pot dispensary issue, “teenagers can be seen heading into them after school lets out in Hollywood, Fairfax, Northridge, the San Fernando Valley, Wilshire District and other areas.” The author of the article did not interview a single teenaged patron.

If true, these issues are the same quality-of-life woes that bedevil the neighbors of successful strip clubs, liquor stores and yogurt shops. They can be tackled with well-written regulations and rigid enforcement. At the height of the 1980s crime wave, liquor store owners were successfully pressured to shoo away loiterers and clean up graffiti. Zoning regulations quarantine most strip clubs to industrial areas. And heaven help any restaurant owner who expands without adding parking spaces — they die a death of a thousand citations. Yet the dispensaries are portrayed as occupying some more sinister portion of the business spectrum where owners and patrons deserve a bitter end.

Political capital might be earned by doing so, but the public has forgotten that the author of one of the bestselling memoirs of the past 20 years admitted that “pot had helped” get him through high school and college, as well as  “booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it.” He was so off-handed in his disclosure that Barack Obama probably ingested drugs in quantities far larger than one might assume.

Our current President and my recent lunchtime companion fall into a large swath of highly successful Americans who have used drugs without any apparent harm. A college friend shook me up when I discovered her predilection for smoking cocaine and heroin. She’s a high-profile gang prosecutor these days; Cooley’s her boss. I have had other drug-using friends and acquaintances who have written books, taught and performed other productive activities.

Certainly, some people cannot control their drug usage. But that occurs whether laws exist to bar their consumption or not. And even the most tripped out citizen on the planet can tell you that spending $40,000 to $50,000 a year to incarcerate a dispensary operator versus raking in more than double that in tax revenues to allow them to stay in business is a no-brainer.

There is a move to place a proposition on the November 2010 ballot to legalize marijuana use straightaway and make it subject to taxation. Given the current environment, it will likely never be approved, let alone make it to the ballot. Which means more than a decade after California’s voters approved the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, the political firefights over how it should be dispensed rage on. And lord knows how many of our taxpayer dollars will continue to go up in smoke as a resultTaking

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