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D.A. chides L.A. council, says he'll target pot stores

Cooley says he will ignore city laws and prosecute dispensaries.

November 18, 2009|John Hoeffel

With the Los Angeles City Council poised to take up a medical marijuana ordinance after two years of contentious debate, L.A. County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley warned Tuesday that he intends to prosecute dispensaries that sell the drug even if the city's leaders decide to allow those transactions.

"The L.A. City Council should be collectively ashamed of their failure to grasp this issue," Cooley said, arguing that state laws do not allow medical marijuana to be sold. "Undermining those laws via their ordinance powers is counterproductive, and quite frankly we're ignoring them. They are absolutely so irrelevant it's not funny."

The council may vote today on the ordinance, which would regulate medical marijuana dispensaries and allow the city to shut down hundreds that have opened despite a moratorium approved more than two years ago.

Cooley's broadside came a day after two council committees rejected the city's attorney's advice to ban sales.

The ordinance they recommended would allow dispensaries to accept cash contributions as long as they comply with state law, a provision Cooley derided as "meaningless" and said reflected "Alice-in-Wonderland thinking." Cooley and City Atty. Carmen Trutanich maintain that recent court decisions clearly indicate collectives cannot sell marijuana over the counter, although members can be reimbursed for the cost of growing it.

Councilman Ed Reyes, who has overseen the development of the city's ordinance, called Cooley's remarks "demeaning" and "a real shame." But Reyes said he did not think they would dissuade the council.

"This is about the quality of life. We all have better things to do than this legal jousting," he said. "It makes no sense to play political football with people's lives."

Cooley insisted that most, if not all, dispensaries are breaking the law by accepting money in exchange for marijuana and promised to step up felony prosecutions next month. "It's a target-rich environment," he said. "People think they are getting the green light."

The clash between the City Council and district attorney puts Los Angeles at the center of a growing debate about the legality of dispensaries. Although Cooley has recently emerged as the most pugnacious opponent of these stores, his views are increasingly shared by prosecutors, sheriffs and police chiefs.

"In Southern California, there's much more consistency among the D.A.s' offices than you might think," Joe D'Agostino, senior assistant district attorney in Orange County, said recently. "I think we would probably be in line with Steve Cooley in that almost all of the dispensaries as they are described to us are in violation of the law."

Three of the state's largest cities -- Los Angeles, Long Beach and San Diego -- are wrestling with ordinances that would allow dispensaries, but their deliberations have been complicated by prosecutors in those jurisdictions.

In Long Beach, City Prosecutor Tom Reeves has said some dispensaries are little more than fronts for illegal drug sales. "What's the difference between that and a drug dealer on the corner?" he said.

The debate kicked up this year in the wake of several recent state court rulings.

Some prosecutors and law enforcement officials argue the decisions bolstered their long-held view that neither Proposition 215, which voters approved in 1996, nor the state's Medical Marijuana Program Act, which the Legislature passed in 2003, specifically allow for sales.

In September, Trutanich sent the council a nine-page review of the case law.

"This is an area where the intent of the law is very clear. Collectives are allowed to grow this and distribute it amongst themselves," he said Tuesday. "Not one sentence says sales are allowed."

Lawyers for medical marijuana advocacy groups have countered with their own analyses.

The Union of Medical Marijuana Patients recently delivered a 23-page legal review to council members. "We're really disappointed because we have been thinking that the district attorney would have respect for what the City Council would come up with," said James Shaw, the group's director. "We're taking his threats as real."

Joe Elford, chief counsel for Americans for Safe Access, said that properly organized collectives can sell marijuana, citing guidelines issued last year by California Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown. "The idea that a nonprofit collective can't sell things is just a bizarre interpretation of the law," he said.

The first indication that law enforcement in Los Angeles County was focusing on the issue came in August, when Cooley and Sheriff Lee Baca warned in a letter to city officials and police chiefs that "over-the-counter sales of marijuana are patently illegal." They suggested that cities ban dispensaries.

The letter distressed officials in West Hollywood, which allows four dispensaries, but Baca said recently that he considers the city's ordinance a model that L.A. should follow.

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