L.A. credits its crackdown with shutting more than 500 pot shops

L.A. says its crackdown has led to hundreds of pot shop closures, but critics wonder if it's like whack-a-mole

A Los Angeles city crackdown has prompted more than 500 medical marijuana shops to close down in less than two years, City Atty. Mike Feuer is scheduled to announce Thursday.

That represents a jump from a year ago, when Feuer reported that about a hundred pot shops had been shuttered. The city attorney has also targeted other ways medical marijuana has been distributed, securing court injunctions against a Boyle Heights pot farmers market and a smartphone app used to arrange pot deliveries.

"There are a whole bunch of different vehicles that we pursued to close them," including civil and criminal cases and warning letters, Feuer said. "We've made tremendous progress."

Still, the city doesn't know how many marijuana businesses continue to operate, raising concerns from critics that the crackdown may amount to a game of whack-a-mole.

Under Proposition D, approved by voters two years ago, pot shops and the landlords that lease them space can be prosecuted if the businesses don't meet a number of requirements. Those include being registered under past L.A. ordinances and operating a specified distance from public parks, schools and other facilities.

When the restrictions were approved, city officials estimated that fewer than 140 medical marijuana dispensaries would be eligible to remain open and avoid prosecution. At the time, police officials said they believed roughly 700 pot shops were operating, although some estimates put the figure more than twice as high.

Feuer said neighborhood complaints about the city failing to tackle illegal shops, which he routinely heard when he was first elected two years ago, are now much less frequent.

"We are shutting down unlawful dispensaries at a rapidly increasing pace," he said. That "momentum" will make new, unlawful shops reluctant to open in Los Angeles, he said.

City records don't provide a definitive picture of how much progress has been made.

Last year, more than 450 medical marijuana shops filed tax renewals to report their gross receipts, according to the Office of Finance. The number appears to have fallen slightly this year, with 415 businesses renewing around the March deadline. But it isn't clear if the tax numbers account for all shops. Hundreds more marijuana businesses — more than 1,100 dispensaries — are still registered on the books to pay business taxes, though city officials say many of those may have closed without telling the finance office.

Another estimate by UCLA researchers, who canvassed addresses they found online and through city registrations, found 418 marijuana businesses operating in L.A. last year — more than three times the number supposedly allowed. That was only a slight decrease from two years earlier, when a similar survey found 476 shops.

The UCLA Medical Marijuana Research team also found that marijuana shops have been shifting from the San Fernando Valley and East L.A. to South L.A. and San Pedro. Principal investigator Bridget Freisthler said it's unclear why. It "might be in response to community efforts to close some dispensaries," she said.

In Park Mesa Heights in South L.A., Ted Thomas said he's seen pot shops close down, and then "two more opening up right down the street."

"It's a little like a running joke," said Thomas, who has lived in the neighborhood for 25 years. "The city attorney and the police are on top of it. But apparently there is only so much they can do."

Yamileth Bolaños, president of the Greater Los Angeles Collective Alliance, an association of medical marijuana collectives that supported Proposition D, voiced similar concerns. "They're popping up every day," she said.

She and other critics complain that the city continues to register medical marijuana shops to pay business taxes, granting them tax certificates regardless of whether they comply with the law. City Councilwoman Nury Martinez has pushed to end that practice, arguing that the documents give the false impression that all the registered shops are legitimate.

Feuer says that although some shops may have moved and exact figures remain unknown, he believes the city is making a dent in the total number. "It's a continuing effort," he said.

emily.alpert@latimes.com

catherine.saillant@latimes.com

Follow @LATimesEmily and @csaillant2 for breaking news from L.A. City Hall.

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