Tensions between neighborhood leaders fighting a surge in medical marijuana dispensaries and the industry's increasingly assertive supporters spilled into neighborhood politics over the weekend in a bitter contest for control of the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council.
The fight featured fliers that promised free medical marijuana to those who cast ballots, powerful labor union backing of pro-dispensary candidates and a flood of voters from outside the neighborhood. In the end, only two of the dispensary backers won spots on the council, which advises City Hall on local issues.
Eagle Rock has long been ground zero in the battle over dispensaries, with its city-sanctioned neighborhood council calling on authorities to do more to curb the proliferation of pot shops. The neighborhood council backed a ban on storefront cannabis shops championed by City Councilman Jose Huizar that was recently adopted and then repealed by city lawmakers. And it cheered a recent federal crackdown on several pot shops in the neighborhood.
This year, a slate of candidates opposing the neighborhood council's "close-minded anti-dispensary mind-set" was organized, candidate Tim Ryder, a dispensary supporter, wrote in a local newspaper.
Ryder's slate won the endorsement of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which has organized workers at more than two dozen dispensaries across the city.
Earlier this month, the union, working with a group of dispensary owners and marijuana legalization activists, helped gather enough petition signatures to force the City Council to reverse Huizar's ban on dispensaries. The same coalition is working on a ballot measure that would allow the city's oldest dispensaries to remain open. A lead organizer of the effort, the union's Rigo Valdez, said dispensary supporters hope a citywide vote can be avoided by working with lawmakers to draft an ordinance preserving some medical pot shops.
The political focus over the weekend, however, was narrowly targeted at the Eagle Rock election. Last week, Valdez sent an email to supporters across the city urging them to participate in the vote. City rules allow anyone who does business in a neighborhood to cast a ballot as an "at-large stakeholder." Valdez urged supporters to "go into Eagle Rock and purchase gas, coffee, or whatever ... and keep a receipt as proof" of doing business in the neighborhood.
More 300 of the nearly 800 votes cast in Saturday's were from "at-large" voters, according to the city's tally of the votes. Michael Larsen, the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council president, said outsiders came from as far as Ventura County. "I kept seeing all these strange faces," said Larsen, who has been a leading opponent of dispensaries. He said he called neighbors and encouraged them to attend the afternoon vote to counter the influx of outsiders.
Candidate Mark Haskell-Smith, who lost, defended the participation of outsiders concerned about access to medical marijuana. "Our neighborhood council was affecting their lives," he said.
Most disturbing to some neighborhood activists were fliers circulated before the vote that promoted pro-dispensary candidates and offered $40 of free medical marijuana to those who could show evidence of casting ballots.
Haskell-Smith, union organizers and workers at several established Eagle Rock dispensaries said they did not know who was responsible for the fliers.
Stephen Box, an independent election administrator for the city's agency that oversees neighborhood councils, said he had received a verbal complaint about the fliers. Any formal complaints about the vote filed through the city's website will be resolved within five days, he said. Huizar said his office is looking into the matter and will refer information to the appropriate agencies.
Allegations of inappropriate influence in neighborhood council elections have come up before. Neighbors complained that during a debate over expansion of the large Playa Vista development in Westchester several years ago, the developer dispatched construction workers to a neighborhood council election -- and provided them with beer and chicken wings as a reward.