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Reefer sadness in Laguna Woods Village

It’s just past noon in Laguna Woods, and retired Navy pilot David Masters, 71, has just wrapped up 18 holes on the golf course. The scene beyond him is something out of a postcard: bright green grass framed by blue sky and snow-capped mountains. Just around the corner, a group of retirees pokes gentle fun at one another while they lawn bowl. And in a nearby clubhouse, another social club gathers to chat, share drinks and eat coffeecake.

Such is the pace of life in Laguna Woods, where residents of Laguna Woods Village, one of the largest retirement communities in the country, make up about 90% of the city. Here, the average age is 78, residents drive golf carts to the grocery store and the lawn bowling greens, and bridge games and social clubs are the stuff of daily life.

So are illness and pain. Conversation frequently touches on a litany of ailments everyone seems to share -- diabetes, arthritis, glaucoma, cancer -- though dwelling on such matters is something of a taboo. More than anything, people here say they are trying to cope with the realities of aging and illness while remaining engaged in this new phase of life, one in which they refuse to accept that retirement means being closed up and isolated.

This is why, city officials say, they voted late last year to approve an ordinance permitting medical marijuana to be sold in town, the only city in Orange County to endorse cannabis dispensaries.

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“The purpose isn’t to be spaced out,” said Mayor Bob Ring, 75, who moved to the Village 20 years ago after retiring from his job as an executive at an electronics manufacturer. “The purpose is to make it so that it’s worth getting up each day.”

Applicants must agree to serve only city residents and show that they have a willing landlord. That last part has proved difficult, said City Manager Leslie Keane.

While the dust-up over marijuana dispensaries in Laguna Woods is different because of the age of its residents, cities throughout California have wrestled with issues surrounding dispensaries for years. Although several have adopted ordinances like the one in Laguna Woods that regulate where, how and when dispensaries can operate, the decision by landlords to rent to such operations is increasingly precarious. In recent years, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has warned landlords that they risk arrest and loss of their properties if they continue renting to dispensaries.

When the Laguna Woods decision was reported in the local news media, the city didn’t have to look hard for applicants: More than 100 picked up applications at city offices and downloaded them from the city’s website; but since then, not one has come back.

There are only a few shopping centers in the four square miles that make up this city, which is boxed between more youthful towns such as Laguna Beach and Aliso Viejo. Some are disqualified from housing a dispensary because they are too close to schools or similar facilities. But at least one that is eligible -- home to a few fast food restaurants, a dry cleaner, a discount furniture store, a large storage facility and several empty storefronts -- has told the city it does not have room for this type of business.

“There were at least some applicants who had real estate brokers to assist them in finding a place,” said Keane. “We heard from a number of people who have similar facilities in other places . . . I have been told they are not able to find any property owners who will lease them space.”

All of which has gone over poorly with some residents.

“I don’t want to turn any of these old folks into criminals, sneaking down to the high school to buy marijuana and getting busted by the police,” said Stu Venable, 80. “They need it if it’s prescribed by their doctor.”

It is difficult to imagine such controversy in the place born as Leisure World, one of several similarly named retirement communities founded in the 1960s by developer Ross Cortese. For his time, Cortese had a radical idea: that retirement was a second chance at life, one that could be enhanced by social clubs and never-ending activity. His gated communities helped redefine retirement living in America.

More than 30 years later, the city of Laguna Woods -- which has only a few hundred residents outside the gates of the retirement community -- was born, incorporated after residents’ prolonged and ultimately successful battle against a new airport at the mothballed El Toro Marine base. It is one of the safest cities in the nation, officials say. On most days only one or two sheriff’s deputies patrol, most often responding to calls about theft or burglary.

Today, the Village is home to nearly 18,000. Many are transplants from New York, New Jersey and Chicago; a significant number are Jewish retirees; two-thirds are female.

City residents seem comfortable forging a contrarian path in traditionally conservative Orange County. They are aggressive about healthcare, nutrition and fitness, and concerned about the environment -- in November, the city was one of the few in the county to support Barack Obama over his Republican rival.

In the last few years, a number of baby boomers have arrived who, officials say, are further modernizing the community. This newest group is not shy about asking for what it wants -- especially, more information about preventive healthcare, more modern facilities and a wider variety of activities. There is even talk of replacing a shuffleboard court with a bigger gym.

“Considering the age group here, it’s more progressive than I ever expected,” said Marty Rhodes, 77, who was elected to the City Council last year.

When the topic of medical marijuana comes up, most seem to take a practical attitude in favor of those who think it might help relieve their pain.

“For heaven’s sake, talk about a victimless crime,” said Gail McNulty, 70, who lives in the Village.

“People who have terminal conditions need to have all the help they can get,” said Jim Barton, 69.

When it was up for discussion last year, dozens of residents showed up at City Hall to support the ordinance.

“The testimony that we heard was overwhelmingly that this was a quality-of-life issue,” said Ring, the mayor. “This was the only way they could live with some quality of life. No other medication seemed to alleviate the pain.”

That’s not to say there are no naysayers.

Erwin Stuller, 82, a retired federal administrative law judge, said he is concerned that city leaders “voted for something that contradicts federal law.” On top of that, he said, “I don’t see the practical use of it. There are thousands of medical drugs on the market that reduce pain.”

Sitting on a patio overlooking the golf course, wearing aviator sunglasses and a cap emblazoned with an American flag, Masters took stock of the debate.

“Drugs are insidious,” the retired pilot said. “People start with marijuana, and next thing you know they’re sampling cocaine or heroin. It just escalates until your life is ruined.”

Whether or not the city’s ordinance makes any difference in the legality of medical marijuana dispensaries is not clear.

Ever since California voters legalized marijuana’s use for seriously ill people with the passage of Proposition 215 in 1996, several cities, including Malibu and Whittier, have adopted ordinances similar to the one in Laguna Woods, to provide access to prescribed marijuana while imposing regulations on dispensaries.

Even so, the U.S. Supreme Court has reaffirmed the right of the federal government to prosecute patients and suppliers in the state, and federal agents have raided dispensaries and prosecuted operators across California.

Supporters of medical marijuana say the DEA has threatened in several cases to take legal action against dispensary landlords.

As in most matters, Laguna Woods officials and residents seem practical about the reality that a dispensary might never open in their community. But at least a few respect their city for trying.

“All around us are cities that banned” medical marijuana, said McNulty, who has lived in the Village for 10 years, “but we went a different way. I was very proud of their decision.”

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paloma.esquivel@latimes.com


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