Why Compton said no to legal marijuana sales

The California city tries to move on from a painful history scarred by illegal drugs.


“We just got raided two Thursdays ago,” says the tank top-wearing woman behind the counter, sounding nonchalant about it. We’re talking inside an unmarked building on Rosecrans Avenue, a bustling street whose name has received shout-outs in songs by popular local rappers, including Dr. Dre and Kendrick Lamar. On this weekday afternoon in Compton, in Southern Los Angeles, the smoky, dimly lit marijuana dispensary features a steady stream of customers, who pay $20 and up for cannabis strains with names like Thin Mint and F*ck Trump. This is one of a dozen or so dispensaries operating illegally in Compton. Though they’re subject to regular police raids and closures, they always seem to bounce back.

In 2016, 62 percent of local voters (and the majority of voters statewide) supported legalizing individual cannabis use in California. This meant that recreational users wouldn’t be prosecuted, and it paved the way for dispensaries to sell marijuana. But this January, just two years later, Compton voters returned to the polls and overwhelmingly rejected that would have legalized local sales. This tension – between state-level support for use and city-level opposition to sales – is at the heart of many of the battles over marijuana that are happening across the West. In Compton, the situation is especially convoluted, as the city tries to move on from a painful history scarred by illegal drugs.

  • Rosecrans Avenue, one of Compton’s main thoroughfares, where illegal marijuana dispensaries have operated over the past several years. Though they are occasionally raided by police, many of them return soon after.

    Roberto (Bear) Guerra
  • A green cross is that all remains of a now-closed illegal marijuana dispensary along North Long Beach Avenue in Compton, California.

    Roberto (Bear) Guerra
  • A sign on a vacant storefront along Compton’s Rosecrans Avenue, where illegal marijuana dispensaries have been operating in recent years. It specifies that the landlord will not rent to dispensaries.

    Roberto (Bear) Guerra

These days, Compton is majority Latino; about a third of its population is black. But six decades ago, it was a nearly all-white suburb of LA. Once it became harder for property owners to pursue openly discriminatory policies and black families began arriving in large numbers in the 1950s, most of the white population fled. The erosion of the local tax base, as well as the departure of blue-collar jobs, led to rising unemployment and poverty. By the early 1980s, Compton had become known for the crack cocaine trade and the notorious street gang it spawned, the Bloods. This was at the height of the War on Drugs, when law enforcement disproportionately targeted LA’s black and Latino communities, spawning accusations of racial profiling and police brutality.  

In Compton, which has since become increasingly prosperous, no one wants a return to the worst of the crack crisis. Chris Petit, a retired pastor and father of two who grew up in the area, has long been vocal about what he sees as Compton’s problems. “The farce which was the ‘War on Drugs’ in the ’90s incarcerated many of our young men and at the same time failed to do anything about a growing addiction problem in our city.” Young minorities have long received unjust treatment for nonviolent drug offenses, he says, and he remains skeptical about whether legal weed would benefit them.

Chris Petit is a retired pastor and outspoken critic of the legalization of marijuana dispensaries in Compton, California, where he grew up and still lives with his wife and two sons. Petit was one of many residents that voted earlier this year to prohibit the legalization of marijuana sales, despite the fact that it has been legalized throughout the state and in surrounding communities.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra

Petit recognizes that his city can’t — or won’t — enforce the law and keep illegal dispensaries from operating. “What I am against is opening the city to an industry that offers no value beyond tax revenue, especially when enforcement is lacking,” Petit says. “It’s not what I want to see in my neighborhood.” 

Such arguments are familiar to Fanny Guzman, who, with her husband, co-founded the advocacy group Latinos for Cannabis in 2014, with members in Compton. For Guzman, the issue is both personal and cultural. Her mother is a conservative church-going Christian and teetotaler, and she didn’t acknowledge the benefits of the plant until Guzman’s terminally ill brother, who has a rare genetic disorder, began using medicinal cannabis.

This longstanding opposition to cannabis among the older generations is common in California’s Latino communities. “One of the things that our communities face is fear: fear from the historical violence that came from the War on Drugs, mass sentencing, and incarceration,” says Guzman. But Latinos for Cannabis is betting on the benefits of medicinal cannabis and safe recreational use, as well as the potential for job creation in communities of color.

Advocates say it’s urgent for communities to get involved in shaping the cannabis industry now, by addressing the barriers to legal sales, including the high cost of licenses and the legal or on owners with criminal records. Some cities are trying to level the playing field: LA and Oakland have been experimenting with for the new industry, providing support with licensing and other aspects for people and neighborhoods that have been particular targets for marijuana-related arrests.

None of this will apply to Compton, however, where local sales remain illegal. At the Rosecrans Avenue dispensary, the staff simply reopened a few days after the last raid, welcoming back their loyal customers, cutting through the police tape.

A giant inflatable gorilla calls attention to a new legal dispensary in Gardena, California, about a mile west of Compton along Rosecrans Avenue.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra

Christine Ro is a writer and editor interested in international development, social justice, environmentalism, language, and pop culture. She splits her time between Los Angeles and London.

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