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Some compassionate pot shops caught in L.A. law’s red tape

They seem like just what California voters like me had in mind when we approved the “compassionate” use of marijuana to treat medical ills 14 years ago.

The Toluca Lake Collective operates out of a converted house on a quiet street, with no neon sign or ATM machine. It carries just six strains of marijuana — unlike the dozens some dispensaries offer. All are grown locally by members, and owner Frank Sheftel can tell you which works best to relieve pain, ease muscle spasms or just deliver a good night’s sleep.

Across town, there’s PureLife Alternative Wellness Center. It was created by cancer survivor Yami Bolanos as an alternative to “those blaring-music and strobe-light places, where you’re taking advice from an 18-year-old with piercings all over her face,” she said.

PureLife has a comfy lobby, high-end furniture, and rows of marijuana choices and medical information. The shop hosts tours for city officials and law enforcement officers and was selected by collective owners as the best example of a well-run place.

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Both have been around since 2006 and were supposed to be among the 186 collectives “grandfathered” in when the city adopted tough medical marijuana restrictions that put hundreds of dispensaries out of business this year.

But they have wound up among 130 original collectives now threatened with closure because of — depending on how you see it — either a paperwork glitch or a dirty trick.

In Sheftel’s case, his required registration was “inadvertently misdirected by city staff.” The city acknowledged as much in a notation adding him to the approved list in 2008. But he has since been dropped from the list on the grounds that he missed the deadline when he filed his paperwork in Van Nuys instead of the clerk’s office downtown.

Bolanos is caught in a bigger problem. PureLife is one of 58 collectives targeted for closure because they may have hired or fired a manager since they first applied.

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“It’s ridiculous for them to disqualify me because I have hired a manager,” said Bolanos. “I want my business to be run well, so I have family members helping me manage now. What do they think I’m supposed to do when I can’t be here? Is that a reason to shut us down?”

It’s not as if the city is going easy on dispensaries now. After years of watching pot shops proliferate, the City Council this year passed one of the toughest marijuana regulation laws in the state. It requires dispensaries to be patient-dominated collectives, located at least 1,000 feet from schools, parks, libraries and homes, closed by 8 each night and without neon cannabis-leaf signs.

The ordinance goes on for 17 pages, regulating everything from how much employees can be paid (reasonable wages and benefits; no bonuses) to how many collectives a patient can join (one). It caps the number of dispensaries, but makes an exception for those that registered with the city in 2007, when a moratorium was adopted.

The regulations were a product of more than two years of contentious debate. I guess it’s no wonder that a few things got mashed up in the soup-making. The new ordinance allowed the immediate shut-down of more than 400 dispensaries that had sprung up after the moratorium and validated only those that had opened before.

But among those, it excluded dispensaries that had changed ownership or management. The city attorney’s office interprets that to mean that if a collective has hired or fired a manager since 2007, it no longer qualifies as an original.

And although it has not yet moved to shut those down, the city attorney’s office has left them off the list of legal collectives and filed suit to keep them off.

“We want to be legal, but he wants to get rid of us,” complained Bolanos, president of the Greater Los Angeles Collective’s Alliance, referring to the city attorney. “I really believe this is very political, because the city attorney doesn’t believe there should be such a thing as medical marijuana.”

Councilwoman Janice Hahn isn’t willing to go that far, but she is co-sponsoring an amendment to the ordinance that would put those collectives back on the list by allowing them to qualify as long as they “maintain at least one primary owner and/or manager” from their original registration.

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“It’s unfortunate that the city attorney misinterpreted our intent when it comes to a change in management,” Hahn said. Allowing management changes is not just a question of fairness but of good business, Hahn said.

“I want them to have the flexibility to run a decent, safe, responsible business,” she said. “They ought to have the right to make a management change if they need it.”

The city attorney’s office doesn’t see it that way. “We have an obligation to enforce the plain-vanilla language of the rules,” said Jane Usher, a special assistant city attorney handling the dozens of lawsuits swirling around the regulations.

The motion to amend the ordinance is scheduled to be heard by the City Council today. But Usher wants the discussion delayed until a judge rules next month on motions filed by dispensaries challenging the city’s law.

“What the collectives are experiencing is impatience and frustration,” Usher said. “I’m sympathetic to that. But we have to let the legal process work. Out of respect for the court, I’m presuming that the city will honor the order of the proceedings and let those things be resolved first.”

I understand why this feels to collectives like an underhanded trick by City Atty. Carmen Trutanich, who has made clear that he believes state law does not allow the sale of medical marijuana, just its “cultivation and exchange” among patients and caregivers.

Even to me, it plays like part of a crusade to stop the city’s medical marijuana trade: If they can’t use the law to shut pot shops down, they’ll grasp at whatever loophole can be found.

But then, it’s kind of like the game that some dispensary owners played, turning “compassionate care” into legal drug dealing. It’s just a shame that legitimate collectives may have to pay for the fear and ill will that created.

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sandy.banks@latimes.com


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