Utility Stoppage, Escalating Fines, Considered for Illegal Pot Shops

sketchy marijuana shops

LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Hundreds of marijuana shops are operating illegally in Los Angeles, and a City Council committee Friday recommended new actions to shut down the unlicensed businesses, including having them barricaded or padlocked, imposing a series of escalating fines for their employees and shutting off utility service.

Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer announced last month that 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 since January.

Closing down illegal pot shops has proven to be a challenge for the city, as it often involves an undercover police operation and 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 LAPD Chief Michel Moore said last month that there are hundreds believed to be operating illegally.

During a meeting of the Rules, Elections and Intergovernmental Relations Committee, Council President Herb Wesson said 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.

Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson pointed out that Measure M, which was approved by Los Angeles voters last year, has a provision where landowners with unlicensed cannabis businesses located on their property can be fined up to $20,000 per day for the activity. But he appeared frustrated after being told 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.

Capt. Stephen Carmona, commanding officer of the LAPD's Gang and Narcotics Division, told the 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 commander of the area.

Since marijuana became legal for sale in the state on Jan. 1, Carmona said 131 search warrants have been served at unlicensed pot shops, resulting in 428 arrests, including 180 felony arrests, and the seizure of 67 firearms, 34,000 pounds of cannabis and more than $600,000 in currency.

Carmona added that only a handful of those arrested have had criminal felony charges filed against them, and that those charged with misdemeanors appeared undeterred by the light charge to cease working at or operating the business.

Harris-Dawson -- who has frequently talked about the negative impact the war on drugs has had on minority communities and has advocated for a special cannabis sales tax to support neighborhoods affected by it -- introduced two of the motions approved by the committee, and wrote 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 the majority of the responsibility for illegal cannabis operations, and “not the people who work for them.”

The motion says the ability to criminally charge employees should still be an option, but 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.

“I'm afraid that going forward, going into dispensaries and arresting people and catching them doing other things, that's not too much different that what we did in the war on drugs. We found people who were dealing drugs and we arrested them,” he said. “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 ACE program was approved by the City Council in 2014 and is 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.

A second Harris-Dawson motion approved by the committee would have the Department of Building and Safety vacate and secure properties that fail to comply with administrative nuisance abatement decisions made by the Planning Commission, and says the city should establish a similar procedure for closing and securing illegal cannabis businesses that have been ordered to shut down, including barricading, padlocking, or fencing them.

The committee also approved a motion introduced last month by Councilwomen Nury Martinez and Monica Rodriguez to have the Water and Power and Cannabis Regulation departments report on the viability of implementing an ordinance that allows the city to disconnect or shut off utility service to unlicensed businesses.

Photos: Getty Images

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