LA County details struggle to shut down illegal marijuana dispensaries

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On Monday, the Los Angeles County Council released a long awaited report detailing the successes, ambitions and ongoing struggles of authorities to shut down illegal medical marijuana dispensaries in the county's unincorporated cities.

The report, which was initially expected in February, lacks specifics about the county's enforcement strategy, saying that the LA District Attorney's Office and the county counsel want to take an "aggressive, uniform and expeditious 'surge strategy'" against illegal medical marijuana dispensaries, with the hope that they'll all be shut down within the next four to six months. Their strategy is effectively a continuation of enforcement tactics from the past year.

Medical marijuana dispensaries have been barred from the county's unincorporated areas since 2011. But as medical marijuana has increased in popularity throughout the state, shops continue to open. And while authorities shut some of them down after the ban was instituted, plenty have remained in operation.

Municipalities across the state are on the path to regulating their local marijuana markets, meaning in the coming months they'll have to decide which businesses, if any, they want to hand out operating licenses to. LA County wants a clean slate before it begins to do so. Whether that's feasible is unclear, as the county's law enforcement entities have struggled to shut down all of the illegal dispensaries.

In April 2016 the county's board of supervisors reaffirmed the ban on dispensaries and expanded it to include cultivation, manufacturing, testing and laboratory operations related to medical marijuana.

To tackle the problem, Supervisors Michael Antonovich and Hilda Solis established the Medical Marijuana Dispensary Enforcement Team (MMDET), made up of the sheriff's department, county counsel, the district attorney and the Department of Regional Planning. 

Between the time that the team was established and April of this year, 106 illegal dispensaries were identified. Of those, 31 were shut down, 49 have legal action pending against them and 26 are being investigated.

"I am very concerned about this," said a frustrated Solis during the February 7 board meeting where this latest report was requested.

The report says that the MMDET has struggled to shut down dispensaries, citing difficulties with litigation, adjusting to new legal marijuana laws and a "whack-a-mole" situation, where once a shop is shut down, it quickly reopens in another place. The struggles in the report underscore the regulatory difficulties faced by localities at a time where the state is ready to take on recreational marijuana.

According to the report, there are likely other shops operating in the county that have not yet been identified.

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