For some California cities, officials say trying to shut down illegal pot dispensaries can seem like an endless game of Whack-a-Mole — close one down, and another pops up.
But in Riverside, officials appear to have whacked every last mole.
Deputy City Attorney Neil Okazaki told council members Tuesday, May 9, that city efforts have rid Riverside of all but one pot dispensary.
The last facility shut May 12, days before another opened Tuesday, May 16. Then the new one agreed to close after city officials visited the next day. Okazaki said Wednesday, May 24, that officials believe there remain none in the city.
Riverside has been working to eradicate medical marijuana dispensaries since banning them in its zoning code in 2007. In 2015, city voters rejected a ballot measure that would have allowed and regulated a small number of medical pot facilities.
A 1996 state law allows patients to use pot as medicine, and an initiative California voters approved last year says adults 21 and older can use the drug and grow small amounts. But those rules don’t strip cities of the right to control or ban pot-related businesses.
This isn’t the first time the city has reached zero, Okazaki said.
An earlier wave of dispensaries was closed around 2013, when Riverside won a California Supreme Court case asserting cities’ right to bar them.
But officials say more pot shops began opening again in the run-up to last November’s election, when California voters legalized adult use of marijuana.
So the city renewed its vigilance, closing 16 dispensaries since Jan. 1, and a total of 118 since 2007.
Not everyone is cheering Riverside’s accomplishment.
James De Aguilera, a Redlands attorney who represents dispensary operators including some that have tangled with Riverside, considers the city’s approach misguided.
“To completely prohibit that which the state law says is allowed … it’s mind-boggling,” he said.
“I’m not a personal advocate of marijuana, but when the voters vote, I think it’s the responsibility in a democracy to listen to the intent of the voters.”
Riverside’s success contrasts with other Southern California cities that are looking for more tools to shutter pot shops.
Across the Santa Ana River from Riverside, Jurupa Valley has managed to get 40 dispensaries down to about a dozen that remain open in the past few years, but officials want more help from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney’s Office, Jurupa Valley City Councilman Verne Lauritzen said.
“It is a serious, expensive problem,” he said. “We get an injunction and we close one down, and the same owners go around the corner and … they start up again.”
How the city did it
This month Pasadena officials approved a plan to shut off utilities to dispensaries that refuse to close. The Orange County city of Stanton sent police to raid a pot shop in April, according to news reports.
In the fight to close illegal pot shops, Riverside’s not-so-secret weapon is weedmaps.com, a website on which dispensaries and delivery services can advertise their location and products.
City attorneys check the site daily and also get complaints from residents, neighboring businesses and code enforcement officers.
When they learn about a pot shop, they approach the operators and ask them to comply with the city’s ban, Okazaki said. If operators refuse, the city goes to court to seek a temporary restraining order and then a permanent order to close the business.
The shops are usually in leased space, so the city reaches out to the landlord or property owner, some of whom say they weren’t aware dispensaries are illegal in Riverside, Okazaki said. Sometimes the owner will begin eviction proceedings, but the city can usually move faster to get the pot shop out.
Riverside police can help by observing the facility and making an undercover buy to determine it is indeed selling pot, Riverside Police Sgt. Andrew Misenheimer said.
“Most of the time we’re fairly sure that’s what’s occurring,” but going inside the shop lets police know if there’s armed security, how operators control customer access, and whether the set-up — barred windows, locked doors — creates other safety issues, he said.
The city attorney’s office and police work with the fire department, code officers and building and safety staff to gather information and make the case in court that the dispensary is an illegal operation.
With stubborn operators who won’t close, the court may appoint a receiver to take over the property. In February, Riverside took its harshest approach yet, raiding and boarding up a Magnolia Center pot shop that had reopened with a generator after the city turned off the utilities.
Under the prior city attorney, Greg Priamos, Riverside spent more than $800,000 using outside lawyers on dispensary cases. Current City Attorney Gary Geuss has brought the work back in house, but officials don’t have a cost estimate for the time employees have spent on pot issues.
Some welcome the city’s efforts.
Robert Earle, who owns Magnolia Alignment on Merrill Avenue, said two dispensaries have opened by his auto shop, with one operating as recently as a few months ago. Sometimes he could smell the weed, and a line of customers would form as soon as the place opened.
A few years ago the city raided a pot shop behind him.
“They had the SWAT team come out with the whole gear,” Earle said.
While he didn’t see the dispensaries as a safety threat, he said, he’s glad the city closed them.
“It’s never good for the neighborhood.”
City Councilman Mike Soubirous, whose ward had five dispensaries closed this year, said he gets complaints about pot shops opening in homes that are zoned for businesses such as a law office but border residential neighborhoods. City officials also cite robberies, shootings, and even one kidnapping and torture case connected with a dispensary.
Others seem ambivalent, like Sam Salib, who has owned Indiana Liquor & Market on the edge of the Casa Blanca neighborhood for 17 years. In 2013, a dispensary in the same shopping center as Salib’s store was the scene of an altercation that led to a security guard shooting a driver, who struck the guard with his SUV.
Salib said he didn’t see the shooting and the dispensary didn’t affect his business. The people he saw going there looked old or sick, he said, and now that it’s closed they may have to buy marijuana on the street.
Salib is fine with people using pot for medical reasons, and said it’s hard to argue that the drug should be banned while alcohol is widely sold.
Riverside resident Patrick Maloney, 37, who uses medical marijuana for pain from a back injury, made a similar argument.
City leaders are “totally cool with us having bars,” he said, but unlike alcohol, nobody dies from marijuana.
The Riverside dispensaries Maloney used to visit seemed clean and safe, he said, but now he has to go out of town for the drug.
“I just don’t see why we should put any resources or time into fighting medical marijuana in this town when we should be putting time into fighting crime or homeless issues,” he said.
De Aguilera, the attorney, predicted a wave of litigation as would-be pot entrepreneurs test whether the new law provides more protections for marijuana, as he believes it does.
“Prop. 64 is a whole new ballgame for cities. They just haven’t seen it yet,” he said. “Each city individually acting in its own personal interest and ignoring the impact to the region, that’s not going to be acceptable under the law.”
The Riverside City Council hasn’t made a decision on whether to allow recreational pot to be grown or sold in the city.
Until and unless the ban on medical marijuana shops changes, Soubirous said, people need to understand the dispensaries are violating city rules and could be putting the public at risk.
“It’d be like if I wanted to open up my own restaurant and I said I don’t care about any of the health and safety rules and I don’t care about the (health department grade), I’m not going to pay a permit or anything,” he said. “That’s the problem that we have here.”
By the numbers
Riverside officials say their efforts to enforce a ban on medical marijuana dispensaries have paid off.
118 – Dispensaries closed since 2007
0 – Dispensaries open now in the city