When Your Favorite Marijuana Bar Has to Close

When Your Favorite Marijuana Bar Has to Close
Fresh Photography

The rabbi used to come to the bar almost every day. When he wasn't teaching Hebrew words to fellow barflies or delivering impromptu lectures, he would sit quietly on his stool and copy out sacred Jewish texts into marble composition notebooks.

The bar "has allowed me to work," he said one Saturday in May, his wiry, salt-and-pepper hair dipping down his spine. In between drags from a long, crackling plastic bag of vaporized marijuana, he shared a poem he had written to commemorate the bar's first anniversary. It celebrates "the good green-seeded herb of blessings." Over the line "drawing writing conversating and most of all inhaling smoke," he'd added an "e" in a different color — creating the word "inhealing" out of "inhaling."

Suffice it to say, this was not your grandfather's bar, even if it was your rabbi's.

For five years, the bar at La Brea Collective provided medical marijuana patients with a comfortable place to get high and hang out from noon to midnight, so long as they were older than 18. At what one manager called "the Apple store of collectives," you could catch the Lakers game on one of several flat-screens or plop in a beanbag chair for some FIFA. No alcohol was served.

The collective pioneered a social space for those who prefer toking pot to taking shots. But on May 21, Los Angeles voters passed Measure D, intending to both codify the legality of dispensaries in the city and reduce their number. Although voter guides focused on the resultant closure of the 600 or so pot shops that have opened since 2007, the bill also restricted operating hours and contained a clause forbidding consumption of marijuana at collectives.

La Brea Collective was among the 135 dispensaries given permission to stay open, but the bar had to close. On June 20, to the rabbi's dismay, the collective banned on-site smoking.

Like many regulars, he retreated to the tiny hash bar at Washington Boulevard Collective a few blocks away, which opened after 2007 but continues to operate in the hopes that Measure D will be overturned. Because the bar is slated for shutdown, it presumably has less to lose by allowing on-site consumption.

But it's a temporary fix, and the rabbi knows it. The voters have spoken, and the party may be over for good.

When the bar at La Brea Collective was still open, 20 to 75 people might at any given moment be pulling deeply on bongs, sucking on pipes or puffing on joints, which you could roll yourself or buy prerolled. Budtenders would cheerily measure out a sticky black clump of hash or a mustard-colored dab of wax and combust the drugs with a welding torch or a heated glass wand to avoid the butane aftertaste of a lighter.

"These young people can't afford nice glass!" a manager named Kristin says. She describes in horror how teens smoke out of aluminum Coke cans. "Don't use that!" she tells them. "It causes Alzheimer's."

Unlike a typical bar, the collective is well-lit, with industrial fans to diffuse the clouds of smoke. No fewer than five Bob Marleys grin and exhale on posters and paintings around the room.

People didn't get sloppy and aggressive; they got thirsty and friendly. The unique vibe spawned a fellowship of devoted smokers transcending race, age, gender and class.

But now, people get in, get their medicine and get out.

The collective's founder, 29-year-old Daniel Sosa, is a leader of the Legalize 2014 movement. He serves on the Miracle Mile Chamber of Commerce and the Pico Neighborhood Council, but he looks like the kind of guy who lives in his mother's basement, hiding his political and business acumen in his shoulder-length hair.

Sosa modeled collective operations after the creed of loopy vegan restaurant Café Gratitude, which famously forces diners to utter affirmations like "I am vivacious" when ordering kale chips. Café owners Matthew and Terces Engelhart wrote a book called Sacred Commerce: Business as a Path of Awakening; their touchy-feely workshops encouraged Sosa to host live music every Friday in May, serve pizza and wings during the Super Bowl and offer freebies when the Lakers or Dodgers won.

On the Saturday after the municipal elections, Sosa sank into a leather couch at the collective.

"The next civil rights movement is legalizing cannabis," he said. "People need this, what we have to offer, so everybody who works here is a freedom fighter, in a way."

Trying to understand the thicket of medical marijuana regulations can be overwhelming. Attorney Stewart Richlin, of 420LawOffice, helped Sosa get his paperwork in order in 2006 and has been dropping in regularly as a patient ever since. Richlin fumes that the city is regulating collectives unfairly. He rattles off a dozen Measure D provisions, including the on-site consumption clause, which he says contradict existing laws.

"On-site consumption is crucial for people who have minor children at home or who have seniors at home that aren't comfortable with the fact they might be a patient, or people who live in public housing or group homes or retirement homes," Richlin says. "The idea that they're going to interfere with people who want to consume their marijuana in a safe and private environment is outrageous."

Richlin and two colleagues represent more than 20 of the several hundred collectives that received letters in late June from former City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, encouraging them to shut down or face prosecution. But when Richlin wrote back demanding administrative hearings, Trutanich responded with a letter stating, "The June 17, 2013, letters sent by this office to your clients are not determinations that the recipients have violated any law."

Encouraged, Richlin plans to file what's called a facial challenge to help bring the legislation before a judge, who could then invalidate the entire law. (The city attorney's office did not respond to several requests for comment.)

Because Sosa's collective is permitted to stay open, he isn't joining any direct action to fight Measure D. However, he is closely monitoring Richlin's progress, because if a judge overturns the ordinance, the bar can resume operations.

Until then, one of Sosa's friends acquired a space down the street, which could serve as a BYOMJ lounge for smokers, perhaps with a monthly membership fee. Measure D seems to leave a loophole for places where marijuana is consumed but not acquired — so, the thinking goes, patients could pick up some ganja at La Brea Collective and then mosey down the road to medicate.

Sosa is grateful that his collective is safe. But on a recent Monday afternoon, as he surveyed the cavernous and empty room, he didn't look happy. There were more guards, budtenders and managers milling about than patients. "Do we really need to play depressing music, too?" he lamented, getting up to put on something more upbeat.

Less than a mile away, at Washington Boulevard Collective, the rabbi slouched on a stool in the corner, his back to the solemn assembly of 10 or so smokers. The space was cramped, with only one TV, and no one knew how long it would be able to stay open.

Somewhere in the rabbi's pile of papers and notebooks lay a laminated copy of the U.S. Constitution. At La Brea Collective, he used to enjoy showing this off to new friends and old, pointing to the Preamble and the government's goal to "insure domestic tranquility."

He would gesture, then, to the crowd of people bent over bongs, and ask, "Is this not that?"

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