When my mother walked into the medical marijuana dispensary, her first words were: “I'm here because I have pain. I do not want to get high.”
An unassuming woman in her early 60s with perfect skin and ghost-white hair cropped short like a schoolboy's, she had been suffering from peripheral neuropathy. The soles of her feet hurt. There was nothing wrong with them, but something between her brain and the nerves in her feet was getting lost in translation.
She had tried everything: pills, acupuncture, a special diet, rolling around in a wheelchair. She even went to a healer, who diagnosed the problem as trauma from a past life. He waved a few crystals around and sent her home.
The idea came from The New York Times, which reported that cancer patients found significant pain relief when they smoked one or two puffs of cannabis a day. A tenured college professor, my mother hadn't smoked pot for 32 years, but she'd tried everything else.
She asked her pain doctor, who said, “You should try it, but I can't prescribe it for you.”
Because the federal government still considers marijuana a Schedule I drug on par with heroin and cocaine, many doctors are loath to recommend it. But a crop of doctors has sprung up in medical marijuana states to fill the need.
And so my mother, Isa Aron, drove down Pico Boulevard to Herbalcure Cooperative, a small, lime-green West Los Angeles storefront just west of the 405. Instead of a window, the brick wall facing the street has a mural depicting what the dispensary looks like inside. She walked around back, through the parking lot, past the hulking security guard and into the small shop, where she stated her purpose plainly.
“I want the kind that doesn't make me high,” she said.
“Yeah, we have that kind,” the manager said reassuringly. “We have both kinds.”
This, of course, is nonsense. Pot is pot. All pot gets you high, and all pot, to a certain extent, has medicinal value.
The manager was trying to make a sale, but there exists within Los Angeles a kind of fantasy about medicinal marijuana: that there is good pot and bad pot, and if only we could separate the two, L.A. wouldn't be in the mess it's in.
For more than 15 years, City Hall has failed to create a workable ordinance regulating medical marijuana. It watched as Oakland, San Francisco, West Hollywood and even Los Angeles County enacted regulations, and then proceeded to dither, fumble, stall, mismanage, misplay — and finally overreact.
Now, City Attorney Carmen Trutanich and City Council District 14 representative Jose Huizar are pushing an ordinance to ban all marijuana dispensaries. The motion has passed the L.A. City Council's Public Safety Committee and the Planning Commission, and could be decided by the full City Council in a matter of weeks — or days.
Word is, several members of the deeply split council are ready to approve a ban.
That it would come to this, in a city as seemingly liberal as Los Angeles, is nothing short of astonishing.
“I think it's absurd, ridiculous and totally wrong,” says Westside City Councilman Bill Rosendahl. “They're throwing out the baby with the bathwater.”
The fact that the ban even has a chance of being approved is a direct result of the city's strange and often baffling medical marijuana policy, a kaleidoscope of legal speculation and interpretation, which is always in flux.
“It's a horrible mess, and it's the City Council's fault,” says Michael Larsen, president of the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council in northeast L.A. and one of the more vocal opponents of marijuana dispensaries. “This problem doesn't exist in other cities. Some have decided to allow dispensaries and create ordinances, and some have decided to ban. But either way, they acted.”
Each dispensary owner likes to say that his or her dispensary works hard and plays by the rules. It's those other dispensaries — the supposedly bad ones, the unscrupulous ones, the unwanted neighbors, the fly-by-nighters — that are the problem.
Avedis Ghaghian, co-owner of California Caregivers Alliance in Silver Lake, says of the bad dispensaries of years past, “They put a black shade on us.”
To stay within the letter of the law in L.A., such as it is, weed dispensary owners and their employees today are trained by lawyers and consultants on how to operate and how to speak. Customers are patients. Doctors don't prescribe marijuana, they recommend it. Pot is medicine, or meds, or sometimes flowers. Owners might be called consultants, while employees often are volunteers who aren't paid a salary.
Of her bosses at California Caregivers Alliance, dispensary volunteer Stephanie Tirado says, “They can make a donation to us if they see fit.” Some dispensaries pay salaries, but at the Silver Lake dispensary Tirado is paid with irregular cash amounts and free pot/medicine.
Most dispensaries close at 8 p.m. and do not allow on-site smoking, in deference to a 2010 city ordinance, which hasn't really been enforced. Customers, most of whom look young and perfectly healthy, move cheerfully in and out of L.A.'s dispensaries as if they were picking up their dry cleaning. And while there may be a Bob Marley poster or a Janis Joplin live album playing, and the medicine may have names like Pineapple Express or Alaskan Thunderfuck, many shops have an antiseptic feel, as if to say this is a serious place, not a bar.
Several miles from Silver Lake along the Miracle Mile, the low beat of hip-hop music echoes off the high ceilings of St. Andrews Green on La Brea Avenue. Natural light seeps in through skylights. Three college kids sit at a small table smoking a hookah. Two other young men stand at the bar near five glass bongs with chunks of ice. An attractive couple sits at another table off to the side playing chess. A massive plasma TV is set to ESPN.
St. Andrews Green is one of the few Los Angeles shops that still lets people toke up on-site. It's open until midnight and offers free Wi-Fi. People watched the Super Bowl here.
Stella Archibald, 28, is the manager. The last dispensary where she worked was more like California Caregivers Alliance in Silver Lake — austere and antiseptic.
“This one's definitely more laid-back,” she says. “It definitely leaves room for bad situations, as far as kids hanging out here all day. But good situations as well, as we have patients that need to medicate. There's a guy who comes in all the time — he has cancer, glaucoma and diabetes. He came here last week, he was just so overwhelmed and tired. He couldn't move. So he sat here for an hour and medicated. I gave him some fruit and orange juice and just let him relax.”
It would be easy to assess a place like St. Andrews Green as one of the bad ones: It offers happy hour from 2:20 p.m. to 4:20 p.m. and a free joint or edible with any purchase. But patients are getting treated here. Archibald figures that about 40 percent of her customers are healthy, but many sick people don't look sick.
My mother didn't look sick, either.
The funny thing is that Archibald says St. Andrews Green is following the rules, or at least trying. But she's wrong — as are all the city's marijuana dispensary owners.
Because there are no rules.
Confusion permeates every aspect of medical marijuana in L.A. Patients aren't sure if they can smoke in public. Dispensaries seem unsure as to where they can open or what permits they need. Trutanich has publicly accused dispensaries of buying from Mexican drug cartels, but this seems highly unlikely, given the quality of weed most Californians now expect.
No one even knows how many dispensaries there are — 372 filed for tax-registration certificates, but LAPD counted 580 of them last year. One consultant guesses 1,000.
And then there is the ban proposed by Huizar.
As a special assistant city attorney, Jane Usher has spearheaded Los Angeles' approach to medical marijuana, coining the phrase “gentle ban” to describe Huizar's proposal. The ban would make it illegal to exchange money for marijuana.
Usher calls Los Angeles' current ordinance, passed by the City Council in 2010, “unenforceable,” thanks to as many as 75 pending lawsuits, as well as a recent and important ruling, Pack v. City of Long Beach, issued by the California Court of Appeal for the Second District in downtown Los Angeles.
The appellate court found in Pack that Long Beach's regulatory law, patterned after L.A., is unconstitutional because it preempts federal law by tacitly legalizing weed dispensaries.
The California Supreme Court intends to rule on whether Pack and other decisions will stand. But that could take two years, leaving Los Angeles in the grip of a pitched debate.
Some L.A. officials — including Usher and Huizar — say that the Pack decision destroys the city's ability to regulate dispensaries in any way. So, they suggest, L.A. has no choice but to ban them.
Recently a guest on KCRW's Which Way L.A., Councilman Huizar declared: “There is no law in the city of Los Angeles today that says what dispensaries can and cannot do. … What we have is de facto legalization.”
Usher assigns great meaning to the fact that the same day the California Supreme Court announced it would take up the Pack decision, it also refused a request from the medical weed industry to stop Long Beach from enacting a ban.
“The message [from the Supreme Court] is loud and clear,” says Usher: “ 'Clear the decks, because we're going to tell you how to write a lawful ordinance.' And in the meantime, [the justices] are hopeful the status quo bans will be in place.”
David Berger, a British-born lawyer who ran against victor Carmen Trutanich and Jack Weiss for city attorney in 2009, is a vocal critic of L.A.'s crackdown and Huizar's ban. He says the city should fight the Pack ruling and calls Usher's legal interpretation “about the most ridiculous excuse I've ever heard!”
Huizar's medical marijuana proposal is less like a gentle ban and more like a prohibition that would put the city in sync with the hard-line approach now being pursued by the Obama administration.
Two years ago, Deputy U.S. Attorney General David Ogden announced that the feds wouldn't go after dispensaries that complied with their own state laws, which set off a profusion of dispensaries opening in Los Angeles. But later, in a major flip-flop, Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole declared that only “seriously ill” patients and their caregivers were safe from arrest. And Cole warned financial institutions that they could face money-laundering charges for handling the proceeds from dispensaries.
Then, on Oct. 5, 2011, the Obama administration really brought down the hammer. The IRS ruled that Harborside Health Center, a major weed dispensary in Oakland, owed $2.5 million in taxes because businesses engaged in crime can't declare a standard tax deduction.
Two days later, the four U.S. attorneys in California, including Andre Birotte Jr. in L.A., announced that landlords who lease stores or land to the pot industry had 45 days to close down or face seizure.
In some parts of the city, L.A. has taken just as hard a line. To hear officials talk, Angelenos live in some lawless dystopia, where cops are powerless to stop teeming hordes of potheads and dealers.
Capt. Bill Hart of LAPD's Gangs and Narcotics Division says, “The state of law in the city of Los Angeles is, quite frankly, in limbo, because of Pack. We are not enforcing our city ordinance right now.”
This is technically true. But there are two ways to not enforce the ordinance — by letting all the dispensaries stay open, or by closing them all down.
Los Angeles is doing both.
On Monday, Jan. 30, LAPD narcotics officers from the Devonshire Division raided Herbal Medicine Care in Chatsworth, arresting three people and seizing $6,000 in cash and 50 pounds of marijuana. It was the last marijuana dispensary operating in Devonshire's jurisdiction, which covers the huge northwest corner of the San Fernando Valley, and the culmination of a three-year program (one dispensary owner called it a “pogrom”) terminating, with extreme prejudice, one weed shop per month.
“There's a lot of people who do not understand a very simple concept: You cannot sell marijuana,” says Detective Robert Holcomb. LAPD has shut down 37 locations, seizing $1.2 million and more than a ton of weed.
The seizures themselves are highly controversial. To get your money back from LAPD, you must file a claim in Los Angeles Superior Court and endure a civil jury trial. If the government wins, the arresting agency —LAPD — gets to keep more than half the cash it seizes.
The system gives cops like Holcomb and Hart a financial incentive. The potentially millions of dollars in seizure money goes to equipment but not to salaries or overtime pay, according to Holcomb.
Holcomb is helping to lead LAPD's approach, developing an “investigating protocol” to shut down dispensaries, which involves not only arrests and seizures but also interrogating the surprised, and almost certainly displeased, customers who stop by.
“Once we take over the store,” Holcomb says, “we let several customers come in. It's pretty comical. They all know to say, 'I'm part of a co-op and a collective.' 'What do you do?' 'I come here and give them money for marijuana.' ” He laughs.
Dozens of dispensaries in the Devonshire Division have closed of their own volition. “Word is spreading on the marijuana blogs that Devonshire is very proactive,” Holcomb says. “They call us every name in the book, but the bottom line is, don't open a store north of Roscoe Boulevard.”
According to Assistant City Attorney Asha Greenberg, medical marijuana dispensaries are not listed in the zoning code, and thus constitute a local land-use violation and a state law violation by exchanging weed for cash.
“Our interpretation is that state law does not immunize storefront dispensaries,” Greenberg says. “There is obviously disagreement on the issue.”
Why is Chatsworth the only part of L.A. where this interpretation applies? “We basically move against the ones we have complaints about. So we prioritize, and take action as resources allow,” Greenberg says.
Greenberg is implying that Devonshire Division has resources the rest of LAPD doesn't.
That is clearly not the full story.
Surely, the political decision to institute a full prohibition on medical pot in and around Chatsworth, alone among the major communities in L.A., wasn't made by LAPD.
It strains credibility to imagine this scorched-earth move unfolded without the involvement of Trutanich, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and City Council District 12 Councilman Mitchell Englander, an LAPD reserve officer who represents the area.
Englander, not normally media-shy, declined to comment for this article. An aide to Villaraigosa said the Mayor's Office was not involved in the decision and declined to comment further.
The jarring swings in L.A.'s medical marijuana industry arise not just from the severe flip-flops by politicians in City Hall and Washington, D.C., but from California state law. In 1996, California voters passed the Compassionate Use Act, known as Proposition 215.
“[Proposition] 215 is exactly like the Bible,” says Yamileth Bolanos, an excitable long-ago immigrant from Costa Rica, who operates the Pure Life Alternative Wellness Center dispensary on La Cienega Boulevard and serves as president of the Greater Los Angeles Collective Alliance (GLACA). “Whoever the fuck is reading it — that's what the meaning is.”
Proposition 215 was designed not to legalize medicinal pot but to exempt from punishment anyone “seriously ill” who smokes it and any physician who recommends it. It was approved by 55 percent of California voters, and it underlies the current chaos. How ill is seriously ill? Just who can grow all this pot? Can it be sold for profit? Can it be sold for profit in a store?
Trying to clear things up, in 2003, the California Legislature passed SB 420 (the number apparently a joke by state senators), which created some limits and regulations. A year later, Oakland passed an ordinance requiring licenses for dispensaries and limiting the city to four licenses. Today there are four booming dispensaries, although the Oakland City Council is considering doubling the limit.
“The Oakland ordinance has never been challenged because Oakland was on the ball — they were ahead of it,” says Berger, the attorney and L.A. ban opponent. In fact, more than 50 California cities and other localities created regulations that have never been challenged in court.
But the Los Angeles City Council fiddled. In 2005, there were a handful of dispensaries, and people were afraid to invest money in a business the DEA could raid.
The City Council “didn't want to touch it with a 10-foot pole,” says Jessica Gelay of the Drug Policy Alliance, “as if it wasn't already a law, and they didn't need to do anything about it.”
Bolanos opened Pure Life in 2005, partly because she felt like all the other dispensaries looked like drug dens — she remembers strobe lights, loud music and employees with tattooed faces. Avedis Ghaghian opened the California Caregivers Alliance in 2006, the same year Matt Cohen opened the Natural Way L.A.
“I felt like a total scumball,” Cohen says, “because there were already 35 before me.” At the first GLACA meeting he attended, he sensed other dispensary owners looking at him as if to say, “What, another one?” He adds: “A year later there were 300.”
By then, dispensary owners and activists were begging City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo for an ordinance to regulate their industry. They wanted assurances that LAPD wasn't about to shutter them, and some wanted to discourage scads of new dispensaries from diluting their market.
“I've screamed and yelled for regulations since before I opened the door here,” Bolanos says. In one tense exchange with Delgadillo, she says, he “told me to my face that there would not be an ordinance in Los Angeles because it was federally illegal.”
In 2007, the City Council finally passed something — an interim control ordinance, which placed a temporary moratorium on new dispensaries and required existing ones to register with the City Clerk. There were 183 that did.
But the moratorium didn't work, instead fueling a surge of new dispensaries that used a loophole in the language. Two years later in 2009, KCET series SoCal Connected coined a now-famous factoid: L.A. had more marijuana dispensaries than Starbucks stores. They opened in clumps — as many as three or four to a block, installing bulletproof glass and security guards in the same neighborhoods as schools, churches and quiet restaurants. Some Neighborhood Council activists were apoplectic, and a backlash grew.
Americans for Safe Access, GLACA and other nonprofits lobbied City Hall to create a better road map for dispensaries. Patients made for a particularly sympathetic constituency, and when Carmen Trutanich ran for city attorney in 2009, he actively courted the medical marijuana vote.
“Carmen didn't come to us. Missy-thing did,” says Bolanos, referring to Trutanich aide Jane Usher, whom Bolanos holds in such contempt for betraying the movement that she can't bear to say Usher's name.
“She said, 'We need your support.' We knew Jack Weiss was against [the dispensaries]. So she came and romanced us, and she told us that [Trutanich] would be fair. And [Trutanich] invited us to the victory party.”
“And then he turned around,” adds the Drug Policy Alliance's Gelay, “and stabbed them in the back.”
From the moment he took office, Trutanich signaled his preference for prohibition. Just three months into his tenure, he helped organize a “training luncheon” in Montebello, hosted by the California Narcotics Officers' Association. The topic: “The eradication of medical marijuana dispensaries in the city of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County.”
“The issue is … you can't sell it,” Trutanich said in 2010. “You have to be a primary health giver or a group of users growing your own and sharing the cost. And that's not what's happening. You have the retail model going on, and people are getting rich.”
SB 420 includes the provision, “Nor shall anything in this section authorize any individual or group to cultivate or distribute marijuana for profit.”
According to the bill's author, retired legislator John Vasconcellos, the provision was purposely vague and didn't actually ban profiteering. Even so, it's now widely accepted by dispensary owners and lawmakers that pot shops must be nonprofit.
But making a profit has always been a term of art. If you open a dispensary, make half a million dollars and then pay half a million dollars in salaries, has your business turned a profit?
“I find it ridiculous that we're trying to tiptoe around this,” says attorney Berger. “The idea that we have to somehow take this out of commerce — it's frankly disingenuous. It's a concept in every aspect of health care.”
Huizar's proposed ban would force patients or their primary caregivers to grow their own marijuana, a comically impractical solution.
Marijuana takes at least three months to grow if you have expertise and state-of-the-art technology. It takes an amateur perhaps nine months. To a patient suffering from nausea or chronic pain, nine months is forever.
With a ruling on Pack v. Long Beach two years away, Huizar, who is rumored to covet Trutanich's job, has warned, “If we do nothing, by the time the state Supreme Court decides, we would have a number of disruptions in the community.”
“Make no bones,” retorts Kris Hermes, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, “L.A. is digging its heels in. If it wanted to, today it could amend its ordinance to satisfy the litigants in these cases. But it chooses not to. It would rather ban the dispensaries altogether than comply with demands.”
If the City Council surprises its critics in the next several weeks by rejecting prohibition and trying, again, to adopt regulations, there are several successful examples the 15 council members could copy: Oakland (hard cap allowing four dispensaries), San Francisco (no cap but very strict zoning laws) and, perhaps most intriguingly, Colorado.
Starting in 2010, Colorado began enacting the most comprehensive medical marijuana regulations in the country, if not the world. Its regulations go on for hundreds of pages and cover an astonishing array of topics: how many community meetings to have before opening a dispensary, how many megapixels the security cameras should have, what fonts to use on edibles' labels, and on and on.
Colorado is the only state in the U.S. that allows dispensaries to make a profit. Although Denver has more dispensaries per capita than Los Angeles, it hasn't seen anywhere near the level of controversy and outrage.
L.A. city officials dismiss the Denver prototype. “There was pressure on us to copy what had been upheld in other jurisdictions,” Usher says, “but we felt it didn't appropriately represent what is in this city.”
It's an explanation often given at L.A. City Hall when unique schemes by the City Council go bad, as they frequently do.
My mom smoked pot for about five months, a toke or two before going to bed, enough to dull the pain and get to sleep. She bought a vaporizer so she could smoke in the house. She took some pot with her to New York, making her an interstate drug trafficker.
It made for a funny story — but then, she was far from the only one of her friends smoking pot. In the end, it was a prescription drug that brought her permanent pain relief, an antidepressant called Cymbalta.
Others aren't so lucky. Matt Cohen, operator of the Natural Way L.A., is also a patient.
His belly hangs far below his waistline like a laundry bag — a disturbing physical symptom of what he calls “the most horrendous ventral hernia condition that Cedars [-Sinai] has ever seen.”
For Cohen, the fact is, “I wouldn't be out of bed if it weren't for pot.”
One female dispensary employee says, by contrast, “I look normal, I look pretty and I look young on the outside, but I've had psychotic episodes and had to be locked up in mental hospitals. I've taken Xanax, Zoloft, Prozac, every antidepressant under the sun. Nothing works. Cannabis does.”
But the duality of medical marijuana keeps popping up, giving ammunition to the prohibition side. The same dispensary worker posted the following Facebook message on a friend's wall: “yyoooo you me and a blunt when I'm off work.”
People all over the world use marijuana both ways — medicinally and recreationally. Separating the two will always be a pipe dream.
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.