Illegal weed shops thrive in L.A. as city cracks down

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“From the street, it looked like an old-school drug raid.

A half-dozen police and city vehicles sat near the entrance of the White Castle cannabis dispensary near the Los Angeles Harbor, where a sign bearing a giant green cross faced Pacific Coast Highway.

But the cops didn’t seize any marijuana from the illegal shop. No one was arrested, just detained briefly while utility workers moved to shut off power. The officers had been there before and would likely be back. One detective guessed the business would be up and running again in a week.

Amid growing complaints from lawmakers and cannabis lobbyists about the city’s teeming marketplace for unregulated weed, Los Angeles in recent months has ramped up enforcement against illegal pot dispensaries. But with so much money on the line, many violators are choosing to stay open even after the city has cut off their power or threatened them with arrests or fines.

The state’s marijuana market got off to a sluggish start in 2018, with revenue from the first year of legal sales falling $160 million short of what was projected in former Gov. Jerry Brown’s final budget. High taxes and the refusal of many cities to allow legal cannabis sales have been blamed, while those restrictions have allowed a resilient black market to thrive.

Nowhere is that problem more glaring than in Los Angeles, where the number of illegal storefronts rivals legal dispensaries. In what should be the state’s most lucrative pot market, many legitimate business operators say they can’t compete with the hundreds of stores that are able to sell at a lower price by skirting taxes.

More than 200 illegal marijuana dispensaries operate in L.A., according to police estimates and a Times review of city records and listings on Weedmaps, a popular online directory for marijuana businesses.

To identify potential scofflaws, The Times compared all storefronts on Weedmaps with a list of businesses granted temporary approval to operate by Los Angeles’ Department of Cannabis Regulation. Only 182 marijuana dispensaries have permission to sell weed in the city, records show.” 

The review, conducted earlier this month, found 365 dispensaries advertised on Weedmaps inside city limits. Of those, more than 220 — 60% of the total — were operating at addresses not on the city’s list of legal retailers.

The numbers provide only an estimate of the problem.

Listings on Weedmaps change frequently. Some shops targeted by city enforcement efforts may have shut down since The Times last reviewed the website’s listings. But shops that are closed often open under new names, and not every illegal dispensary in the city advertises on the website.

Unregistered dispensaries were running in nearly every corner of Los Angeles, with the highest concentrations downtown and south of the 10 Freeway, The Times analysis found. Twelve can be found on a stretch of Florence Avenue between Crenshaw and Avalon boulevards.”

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