Amid the ongoing uproar around their Melrose dispensary, Cookies frontman Berner chatted with L.A. Weekly about the steps they’ve taken to right the ship, and the wider community concerns that some of the complaints are a result of the new racial dynamic they’ve brought to the neighborhood.
Tensions around the store popped off last week when WeHoville announced Cookies as distasteful in the eyes of residents forced to deal with the spillover from the Los Angeles dispensary. Complaints about smoking, speeding, public urination and bad parking habits dotted the comment section. But much of the time, and in similar Nextdoor conversations, people painted Cookies clientele with one brush.
Berner was quick to acknowledge the difficulties in dealing with the massive crowds coming to the shop as the pandemic has only seen cannabis become even more popular. He noted that with anything that’s busy, there is traffic.
“With anything with traffic, there’s going to be some issues right? You look at the Hollywood Bowl when they have concerts, just packed with cars and people parking all around there. Traffic is traffic, right? No matter where you’re at. And we’ve made a lot of changes, especially after seeing the video that one of the neighbors posted,” Berner told L.A. Weekly.
One of the first steps was sending down their chief of corporate security from the Bay Area to clean things up. So far, the response from the immediate neighbors has been positive according to Berner. But he doesn’t think he’ll be able to please everyone. Like others, he believes some of the complaints are rooted in the diversity of the clientele Cookies has brought to the neighborhood.
“And we’ve heard good things from the few neighbors as well for the changes, but it feels like some of the complaints are just the demographic of the neighborhood has changed a little bit, and we don’t for any second for anyone to tell us that’s a bad thing,” Berner said. “There’s nothing wrong with the black and brown community shopping somewhere and we don’t want to feel like we have to hide our customers or speed to the line. We want people to experience what they came to experience.”
Berner went on to say one of the reasons they reached out to us about the subject was to assure the neighbors they’re making the changes they need to, but regardless, some people are going to have a sour taste in their mouth because they don’t like what the line looks like.
I said part of what was going on is certainly a result of changes they have to make. But then some people are mad because there’s a blue paint job they don’t like or because of the uptick in black and brown people coming into their neighborhood. There’s a line in the sand somewhere between the two sides of the argument. I asked Berner where he thought that middle ground was at the moment.
“I think the continuous problems [despite the fixes] leans towards the change in the neighborhood. And the kind of demographic of customers that have come to that neighborhood has changed… I have to be careful how I say it, but the demographic of the neighborhood has definitely changed and there are a couple of people that aren’t happy about it,” he said.
Berner argued one of the things he believed inspired the increased support from communities of color in recent months is the stance the company took during the looting of the George Floyd protests. This was in contrast to many cannabis companies who remained silent or played the victim card in the wake of the protests and looting. “It’s extremely unfortunate what happened to our store tonight on Melrose. But as a human living in the world we’re living in today, I cannot expect anything less until justice is served,” Berner said at the time on Instagram before noting they’d be able to rebuild but you cannot bring someone back to life.
As they’ve now worked to correct the admitted issues, I asked if it makes it seem like the racial undertones around things are more apparent?
After speaking to how much they appreciated the neighbors who have been supportive of the shop, Berner said, “You know these people that feel a certain way about the demographic of our customers, they will stand out after we change things in time. And we just hope they can get used to just what’s going on in the world.”
One of the popular themes in the recent commentary is the idea that it’s not about race, “but why don’t they just open up the shop where they live.”
“It’s just a big slap in the face,” Berner said. “Especially in the time we’re in right now. We’re addressing racial profiling, and race in general is just a big conversation. For comments to be made like that in the time we’re in, I’m shocked. I can’t believe it.”
Another wild claim is that apart from the public nuisance aspects of the complaints, Cookies is a danger to the community. But there is a ton of research that points to dispensaries having the opposite impact on neighborhoods due to the increase in security, lighting and camera systems. I asked Berner his take on the idea that the shop had devolved into a threat to public safety.
“That’s the most disturbing thing I’ve ever heard,” Berner quickly replied. “And that’s what leads me to believe that this is a race thing, because you have someone that’s used to a certain kind of person in that neighborhood. Then it changes and they think it’s a threat.” After addressing the size of the current security detail, Berner said there is no threat to the neighborhood because they have customers that are a certain race.
We asked if there were any NIMBYs that had proven a particular thorn in the shop’s side? It’s certainly proven the case. According to Berner, one neighbor going overboard in particular when it comes to calling the police had a history of doing the same thing to the liquor store that used to be in Cookies Melrose location for 20 years. “You know, it’s like, you can’t win in some of these situations.”
While Cookies is in L.A., we reached out to West Hollywood City Councilmember Lauren Meister who has also been fielding complaints. She declined to comment until after the period L.A. has given Cookies for course corrections. “The City of L.A., which is the city that has jurisdiction, agreed to give the business 3 weeks to deal with the various issues. I will reserve my comments on compliance until that 3-week period has passed,” Meister told L.A. Weekly.
Meister went on to assure us that the impacts to the neighborhood are real.
“This is about smoking cannabis in the neighborhood, in public, which is not legal in the state of California. This is about public urination, cars recklessly racing down residential streets, parking illegally, etc. I witnessed all of the above and hope that these issues are resolved to the neighborhood’s satisfaction as well as the city’s,” she said.
We asked Berner if those three weeks ended today, is Cookies Melrose at the place it would need to be to satisfy the city?
“Absolutely, I mean we’ve increased our security big time. We stopped traffic problems. We stopped the urination,” Berner replied. “As far as smoking goes, people walk down Fairfax, Sunset Boulevard, further down Melrose, or anywhere in Los Angeles; there are going to be people smoking everywhere. It’s Hollywood, it’s California, it’s a place people come to do stuff like that.”