What in the world will L.A.’s dispensaries do?

By Anna Lambias

For medical-cannabis dispensary owners—not to mention patients—living in or near Los Angeles, the phrase “June Gloom” is applicable to more than just the weather this year.

Citing Article 5.1 of Chapter IV of the Los Angeles Municipal Code, city officials in early May sent a “courtesy notice” to 439 local dispensaries that registered with the city after Nov. 13, 2007—when a moratorium on new cannabis clubs took effect—stating that they must cease operations by June 7. The same letter was sent to owners of property where the dispensaries are located. It warned that violating the ordinance is a misdemeanor and could result in six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine, in addition to a $2,500 civil penalty for each day a collective remains open past the deadline.

Many of these dispensary operators have spent years building relationships with patients, signed long-term leases for their establishments and sunk tens of thousands of dollars of their own capital into their businesses.

So, what do they plan to do now in response to the orders to shut down? Relocate? Stay and fight? Shut down for good?

Calls to a random selection of cannabis club operators in mid-May netted a handful of disconnected phone numbers, suggesting that at least some of the businesses have moved elsewhere or already gone bust.

But other operators stated that they plan to defy the ordinance and stay open. They have either retained private lawyers or signed on to class-action lawsuits alleging discrimination against dispensaries that registered after the moratorium and arguing that the law imposes unreasonable restrictions on patient access to medicine.

But, in light of the potential legal trouble they could face for failure to comply, none of these operators were willing to go on the record. The only dispensary operators who were willing to speak publicly were those who have clear plans to shut down.

“I will be following the dictates of what the city has ordered, and will be closing by June 7,” said Irwin Feigenbaum, owner of Blue Banana Caregivers in Northridge. “If for some reason the laws change in the future, any difficulty with previous ordinances could get in the way of starting my business anew. I have chosen not to take that risk.”

“Our intention has only been to help patients who were in real need, and are still in real need,” Feigenbaum added, pointing out that approximately 60 percent of his clientele is female, the average age is 36, and he provides for numerous ailing seniors and war veterans. “But even though we’ve had the best intentions, the city simply has a different agenda.”

Will Edmiston, co-owner and president of Dutch Masters Collective in West Los Angeles, considers the new ordinance “just a speed bump,” and is hopeful that changes to state law will trump city mandates come November. But, he noted, in the meantime, he has no choice but to shutter his shop.

“The city made a really smart move by sending letters to property owners that outlined their risks,” Edmiston said. “I mean, how many property owners are also weed warriors? My own landlady is actually quite supportive . . . but what can she do? Unless your landlord is completely clueless, you have to shut down.”

According to Asha Greenberg, the assistant city attorney who has handled most of the efforts to close dispensaries, it has so far been mostly the landlords who have directly contacted the city to get additional information about the rules and consequences of the new ordinance. Some dispensary operators have also spoken with city officials, but mostly to provide clarification regarding their status if they in fact registered prior to the moratorium but mistakenly received letters due to having moved.

After the ordinance goes into effect, the LAPD will begin checking locations to determine if they are still open, in addition to responding to tips from citizens, says Greenberg. However, Capt. Kevin McCarthy, who heads the LAPD’s Gangs and Narcotics Division, told the Los Angeles Times that medical marijuana is not the narcotics division’s highest priority.

“At this point, we are still formulating our strategies and assembling resources,” says Greenberg. “Any fines and jail time would be imposed after a case is filed and there has been a final disposition.”

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