Frustrated by businesses violating an ordinance banning the sale of marijuana, the City Council Monday approved a new law that allows the city to cut off utilities to businesses operating without permits.
In November, state voters approved Proposition 64, which allows for the recreational use of marijuana and its sale for those purposes to people 21 and older. The new law, which creates two new taxes, one levied on cultivation, the other on retail sales, goes into effect in 2018. However, pot is already being sold and consumed legally in California for medical purposes.
Currently, there are 12 shops in Pasadena that sell marijuana, city officials have said. None of them have permits to operate. One of two dealers who have racked up numerous citations for illegal distribution said through his attorney that he will not stop selling pot until he is ordered to do so by a court.
Last week, city code compliance officials ordered Mendoza and Sevak Baghumyan, who operates a shop in the 1200 block of East Washington Boulevard, to cease all sales. The men were each issued five citations, ranging from $120 to $1,072, none of which have been paid, officials said.
The City Attorney’s Office has sent cease and desist letters to the other owners, but so far none have replied or stopped selling marijuana. The city has filed lawsuits against six of the business owners, but haven’t yet sued Mendoza and Baghumyan, said Public Information Officer William Boyer.
The ordinance would allow the city to shut off power and water to those businesses that operate without permits following an administrative hearing, according to a city report on the ordinance.
“Such suspension of service shall only be after the city has sought correction through existing code enforcement processes, including the issuance of administrative citations compliance orders,” the document states.
“We take violations of the Zoning Code very seriously,” said City Manager Steve Mermell. “The shops are operating in violation of a city ordinance. The ordinance still requires due process, and we think severing utilities is a reasonable tool for the city to have.”
The Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act — approved by California voters in 2016 — allows for recreational use of cannabis, but it also guarantees that cities can pass their own ordinances regulating marijuana dispensaries.
In anticipation of the state law passing and going into effect in 2018, the City Council in July passed its ordinance barring dispensaries from operating in the city.
This type of action has worked in the past in other communities. A similar ordinance was used in Anaheim to help shut down 18 illegal dispensaries after 161 others were closed. Of those remaining 18, nine closed within a month of the city turning off their utilities.
A recent ballot measure that passed in Los Angeles authorized the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to shut off utilities of illegal dispensaries there. In 2016, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors established the Medical Marijuana Dispensary Enforcement Team (MMDET). The MMDET is made up of deputies with the Sheriff’s Department, members of the District Attorney’s Office and county Planning Department officials.
In a report, that group admitted it has struggled to shut down the dispensaries due to a “whack-a-mole” playing field, one which allows shops to close when they are shut down and simply reopen elsewhere.
In one case in Pasadena, an illegal dispensary has taken up residence in a space adjacent to a Pasadena liquor store on North Lake Avenue, less than a mile away from two elementary schools and one middle school. The owner of the liquor store, who has been cited by the city, owns both spaces.
“We have a number of these illegal dispensaries in my district and the bottom line is they are illegal,” said Councilwoman Margaret McAustin. “We have had a difficult time shutting them down. These places are near schools and neighborhoods. This ordinance is a very important tool for us to shut them down and shut them down quickly.”
There could be even more punishment for owners who refuse to comply with the city. At a recent meeting which was attended by several operators, Bagneris said that owners operating illegally could be denied a license after the law finally takes effect in 2018. The law could change, she said, but so far no ordinances have been drafted regarding the city’s plans after the law goes into effect.
“This has nothing to do with my feelings about weed,” McAustin said. “This is a regulatory and code enforcement issue about businesses operating illegally. Shutting off utilities is a tool to address illegal usage.”
According to city Code Compliance Officer Jon Pollard, many of these businesses lied to the city and their landlords before starting their dispensary operations.
“They claim they are going to be a retail business and then start selling marijuana,” Pollard told the Weekly.
Last December, nearly two dozen employees at two Pasadena local dispensaries joined the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 770. The union announced at that time that it would work to convince council members to overturn the dispensary ban. However, council members said the ordinance made unions powerless in protecting the jobs of those workers.
“The city is concerned about proliferation of illegal marijuana,” said Boyer. “We recognize state law is changing, but there is still the balance between federal, state and local [authority]. We are in a position where we can enforce our local ordinances. This is something that is in our tool box that we can do.”