Sheriff's narcotics unit cracking down on illegal marijuana shops in LA County

By passing Proposition 64 in November, California voters made it legal to own or grow a small amount of marijuana for recreational use. The sale of recreational pot, however, is another matter, and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's Narcotics Bureau has been cracking down on illegal pot shops operating in its jurisdiction.

From shootouts to robberies, problems have skyrocketed following the statewide legalization of marijuana under Prop. 64., according to authorities.

"They're still trying to at least package it as if it is some sort of medicine," one law-enforcement official said.

Some dispensaries have been operating without permits, selling marijuana for recreational use and telling customers that a doctor's prescription is not needed.

"They're trying to find any loophole they can to make more money," an undercover sheriff's deputy said. "If you can come in now without a recommendation, that means more customers coming through the door."

The Narcotics Bureau's Capt. James Wolack said the Prop. 64 has not had the effect that some people intended.

"There was folks out there that thought that it would ease the burden on law enforcement," the captain said. "It's actually increased it."

Lt. Anthony Baudino, who leads the sheriff's narcotics unit with Wolack, said dispensaries are being opened "in strip malls, down the street from schools and in between other businesses."

Under Prop. 64, adults 21 and older may legally possess 1 ounce of pot and grow up to six plants. The sale and purchase of marijuana is not legal until businesses are licensed.

The state permitting process will not begin until next January 2018.

The sheriff's narcotics unit has identified and is attempting to shut down more than 100 dispensaries that are operating illegally in the county's unincorporated areas.

"You'll see certain street corners where there will literally be one on all four street corners," the undercover deputy said. "There's more of them than there are Starbucks these days."

At Action Family Counseling, Inc., a drug rehabilitation center in Santa Clarita, officials have seen a serious impact since Nov. 9.

Referring to the parents of some of her patients, Sharon Holliday said: "Their thinking is, 'You know what? I'd rather have them do that than do anything else.'"

In an interview, two recovering addicts admitted that they too have noticed a change.

"At the end of the day, it's still a drug. You know what I mean?" said one patient.

"It's being sold like it's nothing," said another. "It's being used in public like it's harmless."

Law enforcement officials acknowledge that it is difficult to enforce, but they expect the $1,500 daily fines may be enough for illegal dispensary owners to close up shop.

"They're not giving back to the community in any way," said Baudino, the sheriff's lieutenant. "They're actually creating problems."
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