Smoked Out

The first thing to know about medical marijuana clinic closures is: You do not talk about medical marijuana clinic closures.

Not if you manned the front desk at any clinic that found itself on the 437-strong list of clinics ordered to close by June 7. The most any of the patients knew at the outset was that something, so to speak, was on the wind.

Janet Cronin, co-owner of the 420 Highway Pharmacy, a dispensary in a second-floor unit nestled in a nondescript office complex in Gardena, was cautiously optimistic earlier this spring that she would be allowed to remain open.

"We're not supposed to be on that list" for closure, says Cronin, who suffers from complex regional pain syndrome, a neurological malady that left her wheelchair-bound until her treatment via medical marijuana.

She says the clinic filed its papers correctly and on time, and also works with the surrounding community — neighbors, patients, police — to make sure any concerns are addressed. "We report crime to the police when it happens near the clinic," she says. "We try to interact as closely with them as possible."

But Cronin's mood changes as the weeks pass. With the June 7 closure drawing near, she sounds guarded and increasingly frustrated, reluctant to discuss the closure beyond assertions that appeals are being filed.

"We're just trying to do our best to obey the law," Cronin sighs beyond the reception desk's bulletproof glass, as the scent of modern medicine wafts through the waiting room and out the clinic door, which opens to the trickle of patients entering on this warm springtime afternoon. "We pay our taxes. We're just not looking for the publicity. We're closing out of respect to the law, even though we're on the list by mistake."

You wonder what segment of the community objected to 420's presence. Gardena High School sits north of the clinic on Normandie Avenue, well more than 1,000 feet away. Nearer that lies a cemetery.

Lest you labor under the delusion that the clinic is a den of addled addicts melting into obscene and relaxed poses: People enter, briefly fill their prescriptions, then exit. It's a business like any other. It fits in well with the factory fringes that skirt it and the Wal-Mart Pharmacy up the road, as the 405 and 110 freeways feed traffic ceaselessly up and down Normandie.

The news spread quickly online when the City Attorney's Office mailed closure notices to clinics on May 5, threatening misdemeanor charges, arrest and daily fines for noncompliance.

Telephone calls to clinics initially found many operators who claimed they were not meant to be on the list — that it was all a mistake.

Yet one by one, they closed.

The remaining clinics — roughly 130 — now operate under guidelines from by the Citywide Nuisance Abatement Program (CNAP). The program was established ostensibly to stem "narcotics and vice nuisance activity at occupied residential and commercial locations." Those guidelines involve staying 1,000 feet from schools and public-gathering sites.

Why had so many clinics been allowed to open over the last three years despite a city moratorium? Clinics were supposedly banned if they had not filed paperwork by Nov. 13, 2007, to allow them to set up shop. But hundreds of owners got around the ban by filing for a hardship exemption, allowing them to open without filing business-tax registration certificates, state seller's permits or proof of insurance.

District 14 Councilman Jose Huizar's motion last April helped to remove the hardship-exemption loophole; his district covers Boyle Heights, Glassell Park and Eagle Rock, allegedly one of the biggest hubs of illegal clinic activity.

In an e-mail exchange, Frank Mateljan, the public information officer for the City Attorney's Office, was asked if it is possible that some clinics were ordered to close even though they had done everything to the letter of the law.

"We made every effort to not include those establishments that are excluded under the ordinance," he explained.

Regarding 420 Highway Pharmacy and other clinics that tried to be sensitive to the concerns of their neighboring community, Mateljan says he isn't aware of any clinic allowed to stay open simply because it had engaged with its neighbors and police. The 420 Highway Pharmacy doused its neon green cross for the last time this week.

So what were the biggest community complaints about the clinics?

Proximity to schools and public-gatjeromg sites and "different types of crime — burglaries, robberies and shootings at the sites themselves and nuisance activity, such as smoking marijuana, marijuana sales and excessive traffic around the sites," Mateljan says.

The ultimate beneficiaries of the closures are the clinics not on the list. They now enjoy a playing field tilted by the departure of least 75 percent of their competitors.

Mateljan wrote that the City Attorney's Office doesn't expect to see a correlative uptick in similar crimes near those officially sanctioned pot clinics, noting that those clinics are abiding by the CNAP guidelines. "We expect the sites to be 1,000 feet from sensitive uses and not abutting residential property."

Many clinics on the closure list were operating within those CNAP guidelines, however. But since they hadn't filed their paperwork on time back in 2007, the city regarded them as nuisances.

In the eyes of the City Attorney's Office — to paraphrase Animal Farm — some nuisances are simply more equal than others.

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