Looks like the City of Los Angeles has a couple of new weapons in its escalating war on medicinal marijuana: strict enforcement of city codes combined with innovative legal arguments over what's allowed under a 3-month-old ordinance designed to cull weed dispensaries that cropped up after California legalized them in 2003.
But marijuana smokers aren't the only targets in the city's campaign against storefront pot sales. A whole community of Atwater Village Alzheimer's patients is poised to become collateral damage in one of L.A.'s latest pot battles.
It all started when Oakland-based Oaksterdam University expanded into Southern California. Its mission is to teach medicinal-marijuana smokers how to grow their own, and that's what the eight-person staff set out to do when they moved into a Glendale Boulevard strip mall. Thus, Oaksterdam became neighbors with Jubilee Adult Day Health Care Center, where local working folk take their elderly relatives with dementia for a safe day of activity, exercise and lunch.
Even before Oaksterdam moved in on April 23, the school's executives knew that partially state-funded Jubilee was in a financial jam after debt-laden California shut off a good portion of its operating budget. Jubilee was now pinched to make its rent, and the day care for the mostly Filipino immigrants was threatened.
“We teach people how not to break the law and be a good neighbor” in the school's pot-dispensary training, says Dale Skye Jones, whose official title is executive chancellor of Oaksterdam.
Oaksterdam saw the opportunity to put its neighborly notions into practice. The school needed a big classroom for night and weekend students. Jubilee, next door, had a room that would accommodate 79 people. The school paid Jubilee $2,000 a month to use its classroom, which helped Jubilee to keep its doors open. The landlord even agreed to rewrite both leases.
Everything was fine until Building and Safety officials came knocking in May with a “notice of noncompliance,” stating Oaksterdam was violating the original certificate of occupancy.
“Two inspectors came out and said the original occupational license shows there was a candy store in our location — and told us the only thing we could do was sell packaged candy,” Oaksterdam's Skye Jones says. “But in this same spot, City Councilman Tom LaBonge maintained a campaign headquarters [in the early 1990s], and there was a coffin store here for the past eight years before us. I wonder if they had to sell candy.”
Oaksterdam doesn't sell marijuana. It sells know-how. But, to comply with the city's demand, the pot school started selling candy.
According to Building and Safety public information officer David Lara, Oaksterdam is missing the city's point. (People often do, when it comes to L.A. City Hall.) Any time a new business moves into a commercial space that housed an entirely different business, it must apply for a new certificate of occupancy. Lara says the notices Building and Safety issued to Oaksterdam and Jubilee resulted from complaints by neighbors: “We'd only know it if there was a complaint,” he says.
“The building was a retail store, and our department views [Oaksterdam's] operation as a school [as] a violation,” Lara says. And he describes Oaksterdam's use of the Jubilee classroom this way: “Oaksterdam moved to a building next door and it didn't have the proper use permit.”
He's echoed by City Council member Eric Garcetti, whose District 13 includes Atwater Village. Says Garcetti spokesman Yusef Robb, “We are aware of widespread community concern regarding this establishment, and it is our understanding that the Department of Building and Safety received complaints. … Any business, regardless of type, must have the proper permits. That is the issue here.”
That's a bunch of malarkey to Jeff Gardner, former president of the Atwater Village Chamber of Commerce and former co-chair of the Atwater Village Neighborhood Council. He's also the ex-husband of Leona Gardner, the landlord who rents the 1950s-era strip-mall space to Oaksterdam, at 3153 Glendale Blvd., and Jubilee, at 3155 Glendale Blvd.
Oaksterdam's benefits to the area extend beyond the senior day-care center, Gardner says. Its operations have increased foot traffic by 500 to 600 people a month, something nearby businesses appreciate, he says.
Patrick Paeper, owner of Alias Books East, three doors down from Oaksterdam, says he can't imagine Atwater Village neighbors complaining.
“They've been no problem at all,” Paeper says. “Every time there was a class there would be 40 or 50 more people on the street, so there was an increase in traffic. I would get a straggler here and there. I would have liked to see something that complements my business better, like a yogurt shop, but [Oaksterdam] has a right to exist.”
When an L.A. Weekly reporter visited the day-care center, Jubilee executives asked not to be identified and refused to answer questions. They would only point to Jubilee co-owner Lou Cabrales' name on a list. And Cabrales would only say, “I don't want to be interviewed, because I don't want to jeopardize my businesses.”
“The [Jubilee] owners come from [the Philippines], where they experienced a dictatorship. They don't trust governments,” says landlord Leona Gardner. “I've tried to get them to talk, but they're scared. If Jubilee is forced out or has to move, people are going to have to quit their jobs so they can take care of their sick parents.”
On May 27, the city sent Leona Gardner the same letter it sent Oaksterdam, charging the facility with a “change-of-use violation, namely operating an educational facility from a retail location.” The city ordered the school to stop teaching at 3153 Glendale Blvd. or face a $550 fine that could grow to $1,925.
“But they weren't teaching at 3153. All I ever saw at 3153 were Oaksterdam employees pushing paper like in any office,” she says. “They were teaching at Jubilee at 3155 next door at night, and on weekends when Jubilee wasn't using its 4,400-square-foot room.”
When the city realized that error, Building and Safety officials sent a second notice, dated August 2, to landlord Gardner ordering her to stop Oaksterdam from teaching in Jubilee's room at 3155 Glendale Blvd. because Jubilee is not a permitted educational location.
Apparently, under Building and Safety's suddenly ultrastrict take on things, Jubilee cannot hold classes — yet everywhere else in America, senior day care is based on fun classes for seniors.
The exasperated school approached the city's bureaucrats in August about a “dual-occupancy” certificate designating Jubilee an adult day-care center and education facility.
That meeting didn't go so well, says Oaksterdam executive coordinator Amanda Brazel. “People we talked to at the Department of Building and Safety didn't have hope for us,” Brazel says. “They said it was because of the general atmosphere with respect to a lot of what's going on with medical marijuana and the actions of the city attorney.”
Building and Safety's Lara discounts Oaksterdam's suspicion of a citywide plot to kill medicinal pot. “Neither Eric Garcetti nor the city attorney had anything to do with this action. We were not directed by anyone.”
Still, City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, an avid supporter of District Attorney Steve Cooley's goal to close dispensaries, recently unveiled a new legal tactic. Trutanich says the city's ordinance on marijuana dispensaries, which took effect in June, disqualifies any dispensary if it changes managers or owners. He argues that several longtime, legal dispensaries should be disqualified and has asked a judge to close them.
Oaksterdam isn't waiting around for the verdict. August 15 was the last day Oaksterdam taught in the Jubilee room. The staff moved the classroom to a warehouse. They refuse to say where it is, fearing more city wrath.
Landlord Leona Gardner is wistful as she waits to see if Jubilee can make its October rent. “I was trying to help Jubilee and Oaksterdam,” she says. “I thought it was a good match. Oaksterdam got a better place to teach and Jubilee got money to survive during the state budget crisis.”
Up in smoke.
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