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Civic activists in L.A. have growing appetite to curb medical marijuana clinics

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The little clinic rests along a graceful curve of Eagle Rock Boulevard also occupied by a karate studio, a barber and a smattering of modest houses, one with a basketball hoop. The building, marked only by a metal placard that says "Cornerstone," is unremarkable, by design.

In the waiting room, patients sit on stylish lounge chairs, flipping through magazines. There are dark bamboo floors and walls painted in shades of blue, chosen to foster warmth and serenity.

Each patient is escorted to a back room. There, workers wait behind a steel, L-shaped bar. The air is full of Brazilian jazz and the pungent, sugary scent of the only medication dispensed here: marijuana, premium strains of it, dried into meaty buds, stacked up in tall mason jars and sold for $15 to $20 a gram.

Officials and neighborhood activists in this corner of Los Angeles were taken aback recently when they discovered that their community was home to nearly a dozen of these medical marijuana dispensaries, all within a 2-mile radius, mostly in Eagle Rock but also in Highland Park and Glassell Park.

The dispensaries, civic leaders say, appear to be legal operations -- not businesses, technically, but "collectives" of people who take marijuana to treat symptoms and side effects of arthritis, AIDS, anorexia, cancer and other ailments.

Those expressing concern say it is less about the facilities' legitimacy and more about local control -- whether a neighborhood has a voice in determining where dispensaries can open and, in particular, whether so many should be allowed in such a small area. They argue that in some cases, the clinics are subject to fewer restrictions than a new liquor store -- even a new drugstore or a yogurt shop.

But here at the Cornerstone Collective, few understand what the hoopla is about. Operators and clientsbelieve firmly that marijuana is vital to the healthcare needs of people who are in pain or have lost their appetites or cannot sleep. They argue that it is a belief that the California public generally embraces, along with the idea that law enforcement's long fight against marijuana has been misguided and wasteful.

It is still a messy debate, five years after a voter initiative and a state Senate bill legalized the possession and cultivation of marijuana for qualified patients. Local, state and federal laws are in conflict, the courts haven't been much help and Los Angeles' moratorium on new dispensaries will run out in the next few months.

At City Hall, officials are drafting, finally, a set of guidelines for the facilities. That effort is controversial. Some law enforcement officials believe that abuse is frequent at the clinics and that some clients don't require marijuana, while some City Council members are concerned that the proposed rules threaten the existence of legitimate dispensaries. But around here, both sides, anxious for direction and certainty, agree that guidelines -- even imperfect and incomplete -- cannot come fast enough.

In Eagle Rock, the debate over marijuana began at another unremarkable storefront, this one on Colorado Boulevard, a pillbox of a building with peeling cobalt paint. There used to be a comic shop here. Perhaps the contrast between that child-friendly business and what has been proposed for the site -- a dispensary whose owner has distributed hard-stock fliers promising "connoisseur quality" marijuana and a free gram on a client's first visit -- has not aided the would-be proprietor's chances.

Last May, a sign appeared on the building's facade heralding the arrival of a new business: Green Goddess Collective. It didn't take long for Eagle Rock's activists to figure out what kind of business the Goddess would be. That raised a question: Were there any others in the area?

"Someone said, 'I think there are two or three,' " said Bob Arranaga, an Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council member and chairman of its land use and planning committee. "Someone else said, 'Three or four.' " A quick investigation found 11.

"I was flabbergasted," said Brian Heckmann, Neighborhood Council treasurer, an attorney and area resident for 21 years. "I wasn't aware that there were any."

At that point, Arranaga acknowledged with a chuckle, it became an old-fashioned case of not-in-my-backyard. Not all, but many of those upset over the Goddess, including Arranaga, had voted for the 1996 ballot initiative that made the use of medicinal marijuana legal in California .

"That was a state vote," Arranaga said. "But here? In small communities like this? I don't think anybody really got what we were voting for."

The leaders are lobbying the city to deny the Goddess' "hardship" application, which is required for it to open because of the moratorium on new marijuana dispensaries. The Goddess was forced recently to abandon another location after a lease dispute; the facility's representatives say that should qualify as a "hardship"; civic leaders say it should not.

Daniel Stein, the proprietor of the Goddess and operator of several dispensaries in the past, could not be reached for comment. But Frank Paul Angelillo IV, a general contractor Stein hired to remodel the proposed Goddess location, fiercely defended his friend of 15 years. Stein, he said, is being persecuted for offering a legal public service, one that has made him very little money over the years.

"I'm really ticked off. It's like the few trying to tell the many what they want," Angelillo said. "It's not a terrible drug. This is a drug manufactured by Mother Nature."

But in documents sent to the City Council, civic activists have made clear that this is not about the drug. Many of the dispensaries, they point out, are not subject to the standards that other new businesses are, such as the requirement for public hearings. They have asked for that to change.

There are also few regulations regarding the facilities' placement, resulting in "clusters" of dispensaries here and in such places as North Hollywood and Van Nuys. They have asked the City Council to limit the facilities to one per 3-mile radius.

"No one is here to fight medical marijuana dispensaries," Arranaga said. "We just don't like the proliferation. And we feel we have no say in the matter."

Back at the Cornerstone, under the watchful eye of a security guard in a suit, director Michael Backes is behind the bar. Using a pair of chopsticks, he removes a thick bud from a jar labeled "Sunkyst" and holds it under a powerful magnifying glass for two clients.

In measured tones, he offers advice: Be careful when using marijuana in a recipe; cooking changes its character. No, holding one's breath before exhaling does not deliver a greater dose. "And if you want relief, just hit the sweet spot," he tells them. "Beyond that, you are burning very expensive incense."

Like most clinic operators, Backes keeps a low profile. He agreed to open his doors to help demystify the facilities in the public mind.

Backes is 55. Several years ago, he began suffering from debilitating migraines. He discovered that using pot -- "just a little" -- helped considerably.

He opened his dispensary in March 2007. Yes, his mother knows and trusts him to do the right thing, he said. His revenue is less than $1,000 a day, his profit margin in the low single digits. His stock is refrigerated and stored at 65% humidity. He carries between 200 and 300 active patients, each required to have a doctor's recommendation for marijuana as a treatment.

He is not open to the public and does not permit sampling on the premises -- "any more than CVS allows you to take a Percocet in the parking lot," he said. "I live in this neighborhood," Backes said. "I walk to work. I want this place to have zero negative impact."

A few minutes later, Ruben Rios walked out with a small canister of marijuana.

Rios, 35, a manufacturing engineer and father of two, has suffered from an eating disorder since he was a teenager; he uses marijuana as an appetite stimulant. Without it, he said, he would eat a banana in the morning and not be hungry until the next day -- and would be 30 pounds underweight. Today, after a year of marijuana use, the 5-foot-11 Rios is a healthy 163 pounds.

"People think of dealers standing on the corner and shoving things through your car window. It's not like that," he said. "Marijuana does good things. It really does."

scott.gold@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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