By: Diego Flores
In Eastside communities, residents know that a pot shop has popped up again when they see the familiar tinted windows, a green cross, and green lettering appear on another run-down storefront. A steady flow of customers goes in and out of these businesses throughout the day, sometimes leaving behind trash or illegally smoking near homes and other businesses. These medical marijuana dispensaries operate in Boyle Heights and nearby East Los Angeles despite respective bans by City and County authorities.
Eastside residents fear Prop. 64 will bring more pot shops
With Proposition 64 likely to be approved by California voters on Tuesday, some Eastside residents worry that the measure’s legalization of marijuana will lead to even more dispensaries, which they fear will have a negative impact on the life of the community. Historically, such businesses end up in low-income neighborhoods like Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles disproportionately.
Currently, marijuana is only legal in California for medical use with a doctor’s recommendation. If California’s Proposition 64 passes, anyone age 21 and over will be able to smoke marijuana recreationally, possess up to an ounce of marijuana and cultivate up to six plants in their homes. Recreational pot users would not be able to smoke in most public areas, although medical marijuana users would still be allowed to smoke wherever cigarette smoking is allowed.
All polls show that the proposition will pass with a large margin.
Legalization brings new tax revenue and prevention programs
Marijuana advocates point out that the legalization of marijuana will bring in new tax revenue and decriminalize marijuana possession and distribution.
Proposition 64 will bring the state a new form of revenue that didn’t exist with medical marijuana. According to a report from the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, tax on recreational marijuana could generate up to $1 billion annually. Most of this revenue will go to the development of teen drug prevention programs, law enforcement training for marijuana DUI’s, and the economic development of cities with high rates of arrests and convictions for sale and possession of marijuana.
Proposition 64 also aims to ensure that marijuana products would not appeal to young people. Currently, dispensaries everywhere offer many marijuana edibles, “look-a-likes” ranging from sour patch kids to gummy bears. The measure bans products that can be “easily confused with commercially sold candy or foods that do not contain marijuana.”
Los Angeles Police Department Captain Martin Baeza, the commanding officer at Hollenbeck division, which serves Boyle Heights, says he does not have an official position on Proposition 64. “I know that there is a segment of the community that supports it and then on the flip side I have a segment of the community that is very vocal, that opposes it,” he said.
Boyle Heights residents complain about blight that pot shops bring
But legalization isn’t the only issue. Baeza said that many Boyle Heights residents complain about quality of life issues that come with the presence of pot shops. “The trash that is left behind, or the people that buy their product and smoke it in the parking lots [or] in front of people’s houses, or the vandalism that occurs there,” he explained.
The City of Los Angeles does not publish its list of the permitted pot shops approved under 2013’s Proposition D, which regulates marijuana dispensaries. Since most Boyle Heights dispensaries appeared after Proposition D, they are deemed to be illegal by the City Attorney’s office, which continuously closes these pop-up pot shops throughout Los Angeles.
The popular Weedmaps app currently shows 10 dispensaries in Boyle Heights, some of which are situated very close to homes and elementary schools.
Chavez Smoke Shop, a hole-in-the wall operation with black tinted windows is a dispensary on Cesar Chavez Street, one of the neighborhood’s busiest business corridors. It can be found two doors down from a busy health clinic where children are commonly treated.
Luz, a front desk employee at Clínica Médica Cathedral, said that patients in the waiting room are sometimes exposed to the smoke and smell of marijuana finding its way from customers who smoke near the clinic’s open doors.
“A lot of very strange people come,” she said. “Sometimes they want to sit here with a bad attitude. They smoke here, just in front of the clinic and they don’t want to move. It feels very unsafe.”
Prosecutor hears many complaints
Cynthia Gonzalez, a neighborhood prosecutor with the L.A. City Attorney’s Office assigned to the Hollenbeck division, says that such concerns aren’t uncommon. She receives many complaints from schools.
“Everywhere there’s a dispensary there is a nuisance-related issue,” said Gonzalez. “Whether it’s loitering, gang members congregating on the outsides, the smoke affecting the people outside, kids walking to school having to see marijuana paraphernalia or the smell”.
González said that the concentration of dispensaries in neighborhoods like Boyle Heights and unincorporated East Los Angeles disproportionately affect low-income residents.
Pot shops have been banned in unincorporated Los Angeles County since 2011 but that hasn’t stopped them from popping up. On one busy block of Whittier Boulevard, in East Los Angeles, dispensaries can be found door to door, with as many as four on each side of the street. Antonio De Luna, owner of a dry cleaner business on the same block, called these illegal businesses a nuisance.
“They’re very filthy, they leave behind all the trash they bring,” said De Luna. “They mess everything up, they scratch everywhere. They are not good people. It would be fine if they came here to spend money, to consume [other goods,] but they’re just junkies that come here to get pot.”
Andres Azij, an employee at a jewelry shop sandwiched between two medical marijuana dispensaries, said his store was forced to put in a gate to avoid being vandalized. “We had an incident with one of those people that came for medical marijuana, they came in here and they started breaking stuff,” he recalled.
Illegal pot shop worker opposes legalization and new competition it brings
It’s unclear what would happen to illegal dispensaries if Proposition 64 passes. A spokesperson for the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department that oversees East Los Angeles said that his agency is slowly closing down pot shops, but that the County is waiting to see what happens with the measure before acting on the ban. Likewise, Captain Baeza said that the city is also waiting to see what happens after the election to decide what to do with the illegal dispensaries within city limits.
The passage of Proposition 64 will also revoke convictions for marijuana possession, an issue that has disproportionately affected poor communities of color. This is one reason why the measure is being endorsed by the United Farm Workers.
“Proposition 64 will bring legal justice and job training to communities of color that have been cynically targeted by the failed war on marijuana”, said UFW president Arturo Rodriguez in a press release. Rodríguez also said that the union expects that in the future marijuana farmers will be unionized.
There is opposition to the measure from an unexpected source. At the Chávez Smoke Shop in Boyle Heights, an employee who asked to remain anonymous said the measure would bring tougher regulation on dispensaries and make marijuana more expensive. He added that since as many as 90% of these businesses in Boyle Heights are illegal, they are likely to be against Proposition 64.
Diego Flores is a youth reporter with Boyle Heights Beat and a junior at Óscar de la Hoya Ánimo Charter High School.
Photo above: Area residents walk past Chávez Smoke Shop, a popular pot shop on César Chávez Avenue, one of Boyle Heights’ busiest business corridors. Photo by Ernesto Orozco/Boyle Heights Beat.