Medical marijuana advocates suffered a bruising political setback last week, watching helplessly as the Los Angeles City Council moved to shut down hundreds of pot shops.
But pot dispensaries have quietly made headway on another City Hall front: mobilizing campaign cash for their key allies. Over the past year, dispensaries and their supporters have given more than $16,000 to the re-election campaigns of two Westside councilmen who opposed the pot shop ban, according to a Times review.
Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who faces re-election in March, accepted nearly $8,900 from medical marijuana advocates last year, more than one-tenth of the money collected by his campaign in 2011. A longtime proponent of legalizing pot nationwide, he told The Times that he has had his own medical marijuana prescription for a decade, relying on the drug to cope with neuropathy, a nerve disorder that can make his feet “red hot with pain.”
That makes the councilman, whose district stretches from Westchester to Pacific Palisades, the first politician at City Hall to acknowledge being a medical marijuana consumer. Rosendahl would not divulge where he obtains his marijuana but said he does so legally.
Pot dispensaries, said Rosendahl, are no different than any other group seeking to weigh in at City Hall. “They wanted to do something for me, and it’s been clear for 20 to 30 years where I stand on this issue. I think the war on drugs is destroying this great nation.”
Councilman Paul Koretz, who also faces re-election, saw 9% of his campaign contributions in the past year, or more than $7,300, come from dispensaries and their advocates. “I’m an unabashed supporter of medical marijuana. I think it’s a matter of life and death, literally. So they know keeping me in office would be a positive thing for them,” he said.
Backers of medical marijuana demonstrated political savvy earlier this year, with dozens of dispensaries allowing their employees to organize through the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770, a longtime player in city politics. Now, cannabis groups are joining real estate developers, billboard companies and other special interests that coordinate fundraising for specific candidates.
“We want to have our voices heard in the political arena,” said Bill Leahy, who is active with the Greater Los Angeles Collectives Alliance, an advocacy group for one set of local dispensaries.
Leahy staged fundraisers for Koretz and Rosendahl, attracting contributions from dispensaries in Eagle Rock, Woodland Hills, Torrance and elsewhere. He said collectives are contemplating a fundraiser in coming months for Council President Herb Wesson and will back a candidate in the current mayor’s race.
That increasingly organized political activity unsettles Barbara Broide, president of the Westwood South of Santa Monica Boulevard Homeowners Assn., a group that pushed for last week’s dispensary ban. Broide said she voted to legalize medical marijuana in California but now believes the number of outlets is “out of control,” with nine operating in her neighborhood alone.
“These are successful business people, and successful business people learn how to play politics very quickly,” she said. “They’ve got a lot of money, and unfortunately, candidates tend to give access to those who provide political support.”
Koretz and Rosendahl said they share constituent concerns about the explosion of pot shops but disagree with the council’s latest strategy, which prohibits businesses from selling marijuana while allowing seriously ill patients and their caregivers to cultivate it for personal use. (Koretz said he ultimately cast a vote in favor of last week’s ban only as a procedural courtesy to his colleagues.)
Rosendahl and Koretz want scores of dispensaries to continue operating. Both say their views were shaped by the 1990s AIDS crisis, when many friends and loved ones turned to medical marijuana to manage the pain caused by the disease.
Rosendahl, the council’s only gay member, said his first partner, bakery owner Christopher Lee Blauman, relied on the drug until his death of complications from AIDS in 1995. Medical marijuana, Rosendahl said, “kept him alive.”