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LA Wants To Lock Illegal Pot Shop Owners Out Of Their Stores

Marijuana plants are seen inside a green house, on October 10, 2010 (David Buimovitch/AFP/Getty Images).
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Recreational pot sales have been legal in California for the better part of a year now -- but that doesn't mean all pot in Los Angeles is being sold legally.

Unlicensed businesses still make up a huge chunk of L.A.'s cannabis industry. By avoiding taxes and regulations, they can undercut their legal competitors with much cheaper products.

"It's rough out there, if you're a licensed operator. In general, you're getting crushed," said Adam Spiker, executive director of local cannabis group the Southern California Coalition.

The city has been trying to shut these unlicensed businesses down. It's filed criminal charges against more than 500 people in connection with more than 100 businesses. But that hasn't been enough to stop the lucrative black market.

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So on Friday, L.A. City Council's Rules Committee began exploring ideas to smoke out illegal operators. Here are five new ways the city could start playing hardball:

1. Shut off their water and power

The city may be struggling to choke off the supply of black market cannabis to illegal shops. But could it cut off their basic utilities?

It's an idea that follows efforts in other California cities. Last month, council members asked the the L.A. Department of Water and Power to look into whether the approach would work here.

The department has reported back, saying other city departments would have to be responsible for determining which establishments to target. And it requested police protection for any staffers who have to physically go and disconnect utilities at these potentially criminal business sites.

With those precautions in mind, the motion is moving forward.

2. Padlock their doors

The city may already be arresting people connected with illegal businesses. But there's concern that they just go right back to work after they're freed.

So how about literally locking shops down?

Council members are asking staffers to get back to them on the possibility of passing an ordinance "to barricade, padlock, fence or secure an unlawfully operating cannabis business that has failed to comply with an order by the City to cease operation."

3. Increase fines for workers

Council members say crackdowns should mostly focus on property and business owners, the ones profiting the most from black market sales. But they want to punish workers in those businesses too.

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A new motion seeks to come up with plans for handing out citations to employees caught working for unlicensed businesses.

The motion says the "fine amount should be based on the number of citations and increase for every citation, with individuals who are repeatedly caught working in an illegal cannabis-related business subject to misdemeanor charges."

4. Create a new building code enforcement squad

One way illegal businesses skirt the law is by ignoring the city's building codes. Assembling a new team of building code cops could be another strategy the city uses to go after businesses breaking the law.

In a new motion, city council members Marqueece Harris-Dawson and Bob Blumenfield say the city should create a new enforcement unit within the Building and Safety department. Those workers would then fan out across L.A., inspecting cannabis businesses to make sure they're following all the right codes.

5. Hand out emblems for legal shops

This idea wouldn't directly crack down on illegal businesses. But it might give an edge to businesses following the rules.

The city's Department of Cannabis Regulation is recommending that L.A. join a County program to distribute emblems to law-abiding shops.

Legal business owners would be required to display these emblems prominently in their stores -- kind of like how restaurant owners have to hang up their health department rating cards where customers can see them.

The emblems would basically signal to customers, "This shop sells legal, lab-tested, appropriately taxed cannabis." And customers would know to avoid shops that don't display an emblem. At least, that's the idea.

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