Illegal pot shops are thriving in plain sight

The black wall of a shop on a sidewalk is painted with a green cross.
Illegal cannabis dispensaries, like this one along Whittier Boulevard in East L.A., are booming in plain sight.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Wednesday, Sept. 14. I’m Marisa Gerber, a narrative writer on the Metro desk.

While reporting on the world of illegal pot dispensaries in Los Angeles, my colleague Matthew Ormseth met a security guard at an unlicensed storefront that had been raided four times in the last year and a half. Even so, the guard told him, he didn’t expect much to change.

“I don’t see it slowing down,” the guard said. “Just look up and down the street. It’s everywhere. And everyone’s making money.”

In his story this week, Matthew takes us to Indiana Street, the dividing line, as he calls it, in the battle between legal cannabis dispensaries and their unlicensed counterparts, which don’t abide by tax and regulatory obligations imposed by officials and, therefore, can charge much lower prices.


[Read “Killings, robberies, extortion. California can’t stop its booming illegal cannabis stores” in The Times.]

Matthew’s piece, the latest in a Times series examining the broken promises of pot legalization in California, paints a picture of legal shops struggling to stay afloat as unlicensed dispensaries boom in plain sight and sometimes become magnets for crime. Many of the illegal shops, he notes, advertise freely, using signs out front or Yelp pages.

Raids do happen — sometimes turning up hundreds or thousands of dollars in cash, as well as handguns and ammunition — but, according to Matthew’s review of court records, prosecutions are rare, and some shop employees told him that dispensaries often didn’t wait even a day to reopen after being shut down by police.

A spokesman for the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office said prosecutors do charge people with crimes associated with operating illegal dispensaries “when the evidence has been sufficient.” But Lt. Howard Fuchs of the Sheriff’s Department’s Narcotics Bureau disputed this, saying, “The district attorney will not file these cases whatsoever.” Fuchs added that his detectives had seized cash and sales ledgers suggesting that some of the busier illegal dispensaries make as much as $25,000 a day in revenue.

At one shop along Whittier Boulevard that has been raided five times in the last year, there was a sign taped to the window advertising grams of “top shelf” marijuana for as low as $8. In the dispensary’s lobby, a man who identified himself as the owner spoke to a Times reporter and characterized the Sheriff’s Department raids as “legal robbery.”

“Tax, permit, license,” he said, listing the things a legal operator has to pay for. “We’re going to take your money. Without [the] license, we’re going to f— you up with raids. Either way, you’re going to lose.”


[Read the story: “Killings, robberies, extortion. California can’t stop its booming illegal cannabis stores” in The Times.]

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

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An aerial view of burned trees.
The Mosquito fire has burned tens of thousands of acres in Placer and El Dorado counties.
(Tayfun Coskun / Getty Images)

The Mosquito fire burning west of Tahoe rages on, having now charred more than 50,000 acres. The massive blaze fueled by shifting wind patterns and extraordinarily dry brush began during last week’s heat wave, and it continues to create enough smoke to affect air quality up to 100 miles away. Already, the fire has forced thousands to evacuate their homes and charred 46 structures. Los Angeles Times

Exactly how fed up are San Franciscans with the city’s problems? Quite, according to the Chronicle’s SF Next poll of more than 1,600 residents, which found that people were worried, frustrated and pessimistic about civic life. The respondents, who completed questionnaires either online or by phone, largely agreed that the city’s biggest problems were homelessness, public safety and housing affordability. About one-third of them said they were likely to leave within the next three years. San Francisco Chronicle


What happened to Moneta, Tropico and Lordsburg? Columnist Patt Morrison introduces us to L.A.’s phantom towns, which are now, respectively, parts of Gardena, Glendale and La Verne. Los Angeles Times

Peruvian singer Yma Sumac, who moved to L.A. in 1950 and died here in 2008, is now being honored with the unveiling of a bust, a film projection and a concert. The bronze bust of the legendary “Diva of Four Octaves” will be on display at Hollywood Forever cemetery. Los Angeles Times

Who are the strippers working to unionize a North Hollywood dive bar? Several months ago, a group of dancers began striking outside the club, alleging, among other things, that management retaliated when they asked for basic safety measures. LAist


Los Angeles police are still investigating whether a geo-tagged post on Instagram prompted the fatal shooting of rapper PnB Rock. The Philadelphia native, who was killed at Roscoe’s House of Chicken & Waffles restaurant, was 30 and died while “enjoying a simple meal,” according to Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore. Los Angeles Times

Why are thieves so obsessed with one specific breed of dog? Earlier this week, nine French bulldog puppies were stolen from a home in Northridge, as the pricey pets continue to be a frequent target. Los Angeles Times

A former U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer was sentenced to a year in prison after a jury convicted him of yanking a driver out of a car at the Calexico Port of Entry in 2019. Prosecutors have said that the officer, who subsequently lied about his actions in a written report, had completed use-of-force training 10 days before the incident. The San Diego Union-Tribune

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A man in a straw hat drinks from a water bottle.
A Pep Boys Auto Service and Parts employee takes a swig of water during the heat wave last week.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Why did so few Angelenos head to cooling centers even during the record heat wave? Logistical limitations were a key factor. “We just tough it out where we’re at,” said one unhoused man, who noted that he might have considered going if he’d been able to catch a bus ride for free. Los Angeles Times

Faced with precariously low water levels, winemakers in the hills in and around San Luis Obispo are tinkering with ways to make Pinot Noir and other varietals with less water. Rain gauges in the area show that the average rainfall in the region has dropped considerably in the past 50 years. San Luis Obispo Tribune

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Los Angeles: partly cloudy, 80. San Diego: sunny, 72. San Francisco: partly cloudy, 71. San Jose: sunny, 76. Fresno: sunny, 85. Sacramento: partly cloudy, 80.


Today’s California memory is from Karen Cardinalli:

My aunt and uncle, who were newly married, were unsure whether or not to have children. Uncle Bob asked his sister, my mother, if they could borrow one of her five children. As the oldest, at 12, and potty- and table-trained, I was picked. After a weeklong car trip from Michigan, we entered California near Carmel. I saw the ocean and vowed I would live there one day. Took another 30 years, but I made it. Since the day I saw her, the Golden State — in all her faded yet still glorious look and feel — has been my heart home.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

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