Greggory Moore (published in The District Weekly)
LONG BEACH, CA – On Dec. 17 the Long Beach Police Department conducted what they’re calling “an enforcement action” concerning three medicinal marijuana facilities—two in Long Beach, one in Garden Grove (all three allegedly related—more on that below)—resulting in over a dozen arrests. But there are a lot of pieces to the puzzle; and just how they fit together is not clear.
A first piece to keep in sight: according to an interpretation of state law subscribed to by LA County District Attorney Steve Cooley and Long Beach’s own City Attorney Bob Shannon and City Prosecutor Tom Reeves, all sales of marijuana—even by a nonprofit collective to qualified patients with valid doctor recommendations—are illegal, period. Call it the “no sales” theory.
It’s for this reason that LBPD Commander Laura Farinella’s statement to the Press-Telegram that the busts were for “illegal, over-the-counter sales of pot” tells us nothing without further clarification. The million-dollar question I’ve spent a week trying to get answered is: Were the busts illegal simply based on the “no sales” theory, or are we talking about something more?
Then there’s the question of the timing. For the last month Shannon and co. have been crafting a second draft of a city medpot ordinance, slated for discussion at the Jan. 5 city council meeting. In the meantime, Reeves surprised most people earlier this month by announcing his intention to challenge Shannon for city attorney in April’s election (“most” because some of us speculated more than two months ago that Reeves might be using the medpot issue to generate some political heat for himself).
Oh, and there’s also the curious matter of investigators from Reeves’s office (two I’ve been able to identify by name are Art Guerra and Les Fatone) calling medpot collectives and fishing for information, such as employee driver’s-license numbers—not saying it was mandatory that the info be handed over, and generally refusing to say why they were asking.
“I can’t see any reason why they’d need that info,” says 7th District Councilmember Tonia Reyes Uranga, who caught wind of the calls when one collective contacted her, understandably concerned and suspicious. Uranga says she understands the suspicion, pointing out that no one from the city prosecutor’s office had so much briefed the council on what they were doing—and so of course council can’t defend it to concerned constituents.
Vice-Mayor Val Lerch also heard about the calls when a collective in his 9th District called him. He got in touch with the city prosecutor’s office, who told him that they “were getting information on who the players are in preparation for the [forthcoming] ordinance.”
If that’s true, why they wouldn’t tell the collectives this is anybody’s guess. Multiple calls to the city prosecutor’s office by The District Weekly went unreturned (whereas the Long Beach Beachcomber, which in its Dec. 4 issue broke the story of the calls, was rebuffed with an e-mailed, “I have no comment on your inquiry”).
Fast-forward a month later to the busts. First District Councilperson Robert Garcia called the timing “unfortunate,” a sentiment elaborated on by Lerch: “When I heard about this, my initial reaction was that this is poor, poor timing. What is the message we’re sending to legitimate collectives trying to help patients?” And Uranga’s reaction was almost identical, expressing concern that the timing “undermines public trust in the city’s efforts to regulate this in good faith. And to [carry out the busts] without even briefing the council is also ridiculous. We can’t defend [the busts] because we don’t know anything about what’s going on.”
Further muddying the waters is how little the police have been willing to say. However, during a long conversation with a very patient LBPD public information officer, Sgt. Gina Zapalski, wherein I explained the “no sales” theory and why the LBPD’s statement thus far didn’t make clear if that is or is not what we’re talking about here—and wherein she made it clear that she was frustrated at how little she was at liberty to say at this time (citing that it’s an ongoing investigation etc.)—I was able to cobble together a clarifying statement that she could live with being put out there: “The enforcement action of Dec. 17 was not taken against nonprofit medical marijuana establishments making sales only to qualified patients with doctors’ recommendations.” She also notes that the three establishments in question—two of which were the 4th & Elm Natural Health Collective in Long Beach and Unit-D in Garden Grove—appear to be related.
That all three are related is confirmed by Christopher Glew, an attorney representing the collectives. But he disdains any other claims made by police. “They were looking for a big, giant bust, and they didn’t get one,” he says angrily. “The bottom line is: they got nothing. They got a crap bust.”
He then addresses the seeming claim that the busts concerned sales being made to individuals without doctor recommendations or with false recommendations (i.e., from doctors who do not exist): “They’re one of the best at checking and verifying patients. [. . .] They verify all the time. If an employee didn’t verify even once, that would be news to me, and that would be on that employee. But I can’t imagine that. They’re so diligent.”
Glew goes on at length about the charitable nature of the collectives in question—the hundreds of hours of charitable service they’ve performed, the manifold donations to the underprivileged, the giving away of medicine to patients experiencing financial hardship. “These guys are the Mother Teresa of collectives,” he says. “This is ridiculous. [The LBPD] picked on the wrong guys. This collective is as legit as could be. There’s nothing they do that could be misinterpreted as illegal activity.”
He suggests that the busts stem from the “no sales” theory: “We got Steve Cooley saying that all sales are illegal. But that’s nothing other than Steve Cooley’s personal feelings. [. . .] It doesn’t say you can’t have a cash transaction under the law.”
On Dec. 17, Uranga addressed the hypothetical that Glew believes to be fact: “If that’s what’s happening, their intent is clear: they want to shut them all down,” she says. “But that’s not the policy of the city. We have told them at least three times that that is not the will of the council.”
She also pointed out, in a not-so-veiled reference to the mounting Shannon/Reeves contest, exactly why such a hypothetical seems far from far-fetched: “I don’t understand [at this point] why they’re doing this. But sure enough, it’s an election year—and sure enough people are trying to out-law-enforcement each other.”
Lerch notes that in the week since the busts the police have led him to believe that “the dispensaries they went after were selling to people who came off the street asking for pot”—that is to say, not doctor-qualified patients. But in almost the same breath he notes, as he has previously, that it’s “ridiculous that we’re making so complex an issue that should be so simple,” stating that not only should marijuana be made available at (e.g.) CVS, but that the US should be on a model similar to what is in place in Amsterdam: marijuana available generally for recreational use, while also administered with specific controls by doctors for medicinal use.
Until then, though, he’s a realist, stating, “Let’s get an ordinance that works for our city, and let’s get marijuana to patients who need it,” while recognizing that the ordinance we end up with is not likely to clearly address the murky question of sales: “I don’t see how it can be [in the ordinance] with Cooley and Shannon and Reeves screaming that it’s illegal.”
Garcia, who was reached Dec. 18, reaffirmed that “I continue to support and will always support the right of people to access medpot, as long as it’s done legally”; and was typically sober in his outlook: “I think the debate we’re having is positive and heading in the right direction. My hope is that what happened yesterday won’t damage the debate and sour [concerned citizens] on the process.”