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Mark Haskell Smith Headshot

Murder, Marijuana, and the Mayor

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I'm sure they thought they were doing the right thing. Or, perhaps more cynically, I'm sure they thought that it looked like they were doing something. But the lack of foresight that Mayor Villaraigosa and City Attorney Carmen Trutanich have shown in their decision to close down hundreds of medical marijuana dispensaries reveals an alarming inability, or unwillingness, to think through the consequences of their decisions.

On a superficial level, closing dispensaries must have seemed as simple as repairing a pothole or cleaning graffiti off a building; just a little urban blight removal. But dig a little deeper, peel a layer off the onion, and this "no brainer" has some far reaching and deadly consequences.

By ordering the closure of more than 400 dispensaries, the Mayor and his City Attorney have made the few dispensaries left standing extremely valuable pieces of real estate. That in itself might be the cause of this recent string of murders as unscrupulous individuals jockey for a slice of an incredibly lucrative industry. But I believe these attacks on the existing dispensaries might be part of a wider scheme to get all dispensaries in Los Angeles shut down. Why? Who stands to profit from these closures? The answer is obvious: the people who sell marijuana illegally. The gangs and drug cartels.

The California State Board of Equalization reports that they currently collect between $50 to $100 million dollars a year in taxes from Medical Marijuana dispensaries. The lack of an exact figure is due to the fact that dispensaries can file under "retail" or "pharmacy" or "other" categories when paying taxes. This doesn't take into account the local sales tax and other fees that cities collect. Using DEA estimates California NORML (National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws) puts the market for legal cannabis at over $1 Billion a year. And that is just a small piece of the pie. Add in the illegal market and you've got an almost $3 billion dollar a year business in Los Angeles alone. It's easy to see why dispensaries would be an easy target for organized crime and Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca has already suggested that the current string of assassinations at dispensaries might be drug cartel related.

Al Capone was famously outspoken against repealing prohibition because he made millions of dollar selling bootleg liquor. Is the current prohibition on marijuana any different for organized crime?

In their desire to grab headlines and put political expediency over clear-thinking and vision, our Mayor and City Attorney might not have blood on their hands, but they are playing into the hands of the drug cartel and gangs. Our leaders don't seem to have the will or the vision to deal with this problem, but perhaps California voters do. This November Proposition 19, the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010 will be on the California ballot and we, you and me, can take the profit out of the hands of the drug cartels, smugglers, and end the violence both here and across the border in Mexico.