This year, California became the latest state to allow the farming and selling of marijuana for recreational use, opening doors to one of the largest markets in the world and marking a milestone for the cannabis industry.
But with every high comes a low.
As a limited number of licensed shops have tried to keep up with demand, illegal dispensaries have continued to do business, undercutting those playing by the rules.
On Wednesday, Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer and Los Angeles police officials announced the filing of 36 criminal cases involving 140 people and 32 shops as part of a citywide crackdown on unlicensed marijuana dispensaries.
“If you’re operating an illegal cannabis shop and selling recreational marijuana, you’re going to be subject to prosecution,” Feuer said at a news conference.
Lt. Stacy Spell of the LAPD’s Gang and Narcotics Division said the department since Jan. 1 has made 160 arrests, served 54 search warrants, seized about $300,000 and removed 29 guns from the street.
Spell said investigators are focusing on storefronts where crime appears to increase and working with other agencies such as the Los Angeles Fire Department and the Department of Water and Power to help shut down illegal businesses.
Feuer said businesses operating illegally will face a $1,000 fine per violation and up to six months in jail. He said he hopes the announcement of the city’s enforcement will encourage some illegal operators to shut down and not risk being prosecuted.
Feuer said his office is preparing to send cease-and-desist letters to many more unlicensed pot shops. He could not immediately say how many businesses would get the letters.
City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, whose district includes a portion of South L.A., where a third of the illegal pot shops were operating, said constituents have been complaining for years about illegal dispensaries.
“This is a problem all over the city of Los Angeles, from Venice to the West Valley, down to San Pedro,” Harris-Dawson said.
For cannabis industry figures, the enforcement is crucial to their success.
“We applaud the city for doing this,” said Adam Spiker, executive director of the Southern California Coalition, a marijuana industry group. “You can’t have a regulated industry without strong enforcement.”
“If you’re not licensed, you should shut down or be shut down,” he added.
Alex Traverso, a spokesman for California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control, said the bureau has issued 354 licenses for recreational retailers and 413 for medicinal. Separately, the Department of Food and Agriculture has issued about 3,900 licenses to cultivators.
In Los Angeles, licenses have been issued to more than 100 marijuana retailers, but police officials estimate that there are at least two times that number operating illegally in the city.