Surrounded

Andrew Rakos is sitting over a plate of scrambled eggs at Jerry’s Famous Deli in Studio City, talking about the medical-marijuana controversy currently going on in America, and specifically his hometown of West Hollywood.

Rakos is not opposed to the legalization of medical marijuana, or to the idea of marijuana dispensaries. But as general manager of West Hollywood’s Fountain Day School, he’s found himself literally surrounded by the hot topic — there are three medical-marijuana dispensaries within one block of the private pre-K-through-sixth-grade elementary school he helps run and also sends his son to. One of the dispensaries, the Farmacy, actually shares a public parking lot with the school, and was one of the 11 Los Angeles County dispensaries that the Drug Enforcement Agency raided last month. He’s come to believe that there is little thought given to where the dispensaries are placed and how they might affect the immediate neighborhood.

“There are a lot of parents whose kids go to our private school because they are willing to sacrifice part of their lifestyle to have their kids get the best education imaginable,” says Rakos, a single parent who adopted his son eight years ago. “Can you imagine how these people feel when all of a sudden there are three dispensaries and they see cars with Marijuana Is Good for You [bumper stickers] that their kids can read? It’s disturbing.”

The police activity in the parking lot used by the school wasn’t welcome either. The raids, which in turn spawned a series of protests by pro-medical-marijuana activists, were the result of the federal government overriding California’s Proposition 215 and SB 420, which legalized the possession and cultivation of marijuana for seriously ill patients, and a 2005 West Hollywood city ordinance supporting the dispensaries.

“If you haven’t smoked it, you know someone who has,” Rakos says of marijuana, while sipping his coffee. “You use your mind and you think, ‘Well, there are sick people who can probably use [marijuana].’ Immediately your heart space goes out to them and you say, ‘Okay, let’s do it!’ That is what happened in Los Angeles.

“So West Hollywood, which always wants to be on the cutting edge of all these social issues, they thought, ‘Yeah, let’s do it!’ without thinking about the ramifications. Now there are three [dispensaries] within one block of our school. Three. Seven of them opened all at once, approximately two years ago. There were tons more waiting to open, and they put a moratorium on it — they went, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.’ Now, I know and you know that there are people who really, really absolutely need [medical marijuana], but do you need that many?

Not surprisingly, Rakos says he has received complaints about the dispensaries from the students’ parents, who pay $975 a month for their children to attend the school, which serves natural and organic hot lunches from Whole Foods.

“There was one parent who complained to me because someone had come up and said, ‘Hey, man, go to this doctor if you want a prescription too.’ ’Cause he sees the parent staring and assumed that the parent was staring ’cause he wanted a prescription as well.”

Do you see sick people coming out of there as well?

“Well, there are lots of people living with AIDS, and you can’t tell. But you can tell when someone is high-five-ing in the parking lot — it’s a little more obvious. These are the problems the city and the clinics never anticipated, and should have.”

What would you like to see happen?

“Ideally, the city should have one, maybe two [dispensaries] in an area that is not close to a school. And, they should pick the ones that have been the most community friendly, like the Farmacy, which did get busted by the DEA. They are one of the better ones. It’s sad that they got shut down rather than one of the others that isn’t as good. At some point the city is going to have to make up its mind on the level of integrity that the dispensaries bring with them. It’s kind of like a bar. If you’re gonna serve underage people and let people walk out of the bar drunk, you become a menace to society. A parent shouldn’t have to have a discussion with a 4- or 5-year-old about [medical-] marijuana dispensaries.

“It’s not a subject you bring up. The rule of thumb with children, especially in elementary school, is that you let them ask the questions and try and answer them honestly and simply. I live a block away. I used to walk to school, and I don’t anymore. I don’t want my son having to go by there. My son is 8 years old — it really is a very important time in his life — and I have personally had to talk with him about what a marijuana dispensary is.”

You’re suggesting the dispensaries move away from school areas?

“Yes, and religious institutions. They also need to make sure there is adequate parking. And crime — you can see the danger of people breaking in to steal the marijuana. There was a huge break-in three months ago at one of the dispensaries, where people broke in with guns and in the morning the streets were blocked off. Parents couldn’t get their kids to school — they were late by an hour. And when you talk about all the cash pumping through these places, that is gonna attract criminal activity.”

What are the things you do each week dealing with this situation?

“I take complaints from the parents, I log them, I call the sheriff’s department if there is an immediate action that needs to happen. I also log it for the DEA. They contacted us and requested us to log. About nine months ago we sent a petition to the city, not only for the moratorium but also to limit how close the [dispensaries] could be to a school. Recently the city of West Hollywood did pass an ordinance; however, it is for the future.”

Do you want the city to ask the dispensaries to move, like they did in San Francisco?

“The city can ask them to move but it won’t. They can make this law retroactive, but at this point they’ve chosen not to. In the meantime, it brings an element of danger into the neighborhood and an element of social instability. Personally, do I think it should be legal? Yes, it should be legalized and taxed to the max, like alcohol and tobacco. People should have the freedom to do these things. However, do people overuse it and exploit it? Absolutely.”


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