Continuing its preparation for the wave of medical marijuana dispensaries expected to open as early as this summer, the Long Beach City Council voted last night to allow the city attorney to draft an ordinance that would penalize property owners for illegally operating marijuana businesses.
“The intent behind this item is to make it more efficient for the city to be able to tackle the illegal dispensaries in order to make sure that we continue to protect patients, communities and of course businesses that are operating within the legal realm,” said Third District Councilwoman Suzie Price who introduced the agenda item. “It’s only fair to businesses that jump through the hoops, do what they’re supposed to do, that they have protection and partnership from the city when illegal competitive operations show up.”
The ordinance would include the disruption of utility services and harsh financial penalties.
Price said that shutting off the services would help deter operations, noting that some illegal businesses in cities like Santa Ana would operate within a few minutes or even the day after police are at the shops. She also emphasized the importance of fining property owners in the thousands, as opposed to small hundred dollar fines.
The agenda item received the full support of Price’s fellow councilmembers and the public alike, passing with a 6-0 vote. Councilwoman Stacy Mungo was absent during the meeting and Councilmen Dee Andrews and Roberto Uranga were absent during the voting of that item.
“I’m happy to support it,” said Vice Mayor Rex Richardson. “Being around for the last round when there were so many illegal operations and seeing the challenges that folks had dealt with […] we need every tool we could possibly get to protect the quality of life in our neighborhoods.”
Elliot Lewis, who will be one of the city’s future dispensary owners, spoke on the necessity for such crackdowns to help address public safety issues such as the potential sale of untested marijuana that may contain powdery mildew or certain chemicals harmful to patients who ingest them. He also noted the difficulty of competing against illegal operators who don’t pay taxes or pay competitive wages.
“We’re trying to bring to Long Beach good paying jobs, union jobs,” Lewis said. “They’re jobs with benefits and by allowing in illegal dispensaries, these guys aren’t paying taxes, they’re not hiring union jobs, they’re paying slave wages and they can sell their product less than we can because they are unregulated.”
Lewis also suggested high bail amounts as a deterrent.
“You gotta hit them in the pocketbook,” Lewis said. “In another jurisdiction they are picking the guys up, they aren’t hitting them with any severe crimes but they are setting the bail amounts really high so if three or four of your guys get picked up, it’s $10,000 a bail per guy, and after two or three busts it’s not worth it to keep it open.”
Other public speakers suggested a system to differentiate between legal and illegal operators and cautioned penalizing unsuspecting employees or property owners who may not be aware that tenants are conducting illegal activities.
“In the past, I think that was one of the biggest issues that happened in the city, that we’re not able to differentiate and what ends up happening is the community gets confused,” said one man who identified himself as a board member of the Long Beach Collective Association.
Long Beach resident Stefan Borst-Censullo stressed the importance of not wasting city resources to go after personal cultivators, which Price agreed was not the point of the ordinance.
“We have no interest in going after people growing things in their backyard,” Price said. “That’s the last thing we have time to be worried about. What I’m more concerned about is the stuff that’s going to cost us millions of dollars to go after.”
“This is an issue that has been evolving over years and it seems like we are getting smarter as a body here but also actions of the state and voters have actually helped us become smarter on this issue,” noted Councilman Al Austin. “The groundwork has been laid, lessons have been learned and I think this is an excellent item.”
The City Attorney’s Office will have 30 days to report back with a draft ordinance.
Above, left: stock photo.