Long Beach Offers Collective Punishment

How the city's botched marijuana lottery screwed its winners and losers alike

Long Beach Offers Collective Punishment

Except for the oversized green cross painted on the wall and the acrylic sign with the olive-colored marijuana seed inside the letter O, Avalon Wellness Collective looks exactly like all the other razor-wire-topped, one-story buildings that line the west side of the 710 freeway. Six months ago, the 8,000-square-foot, charcoal-gray building, located in an industrial neighborhood of north-central Long Beach, was just an empty warehouse; now, a state-of-the-art, one-stop cannabis cultivation-and-distribution center operates inside, built to exacting city specifications.

The front door didn't open until last summer, when it was carved into the front of the building. A burly guard sits on a stool. Behind him, another security door leads to what turns out to be a "man-trap": once the first door closes, visitors are locked inside a chamber until they're buzzed through. Beyond that, in the actual dispensary area, jars of organic medicine previously tested for pesticides, mold and E. coli are neatly arranged inside a glass-topped display case. A flat-screen television stretches across one wall, and watching everything from a ceiling corner is a tilt-pan, zoom-lens security camera.

Nearly half the sprawling structure is divided between a vegetation area, a hydroponics set-up, and a large worktable at which several seated employees trim bags of recently harvested product. It's like a scene out of Detroit at the height of its automotive might, except rolling off the assembly line here is marijuana. In one corner, there's an Americans With Disabilities Act-compliant bathroom, as well as a fire exit that leads to an alley. A locked side door embedded in an 8-inch-thick wall leads to Avalon's marijuana-cultivation area. In the hallway a few feet to the right of this door is the grow room, where 90 plants flower beneath sodium heat lamps. If the carbon monoxide levels in this room exceed 2,000 parts per million, horns blare and blue strobe lights turn on as intake and exhaust fans cycle fresh air into the room. From the ceiling of a separate curing room hang a few dozens plants cloned from strains with names such as Avalon White Chunk, Diesel Alien and Tar Dog.

Josh Howard
Miguel Vasconcellos
Josh Howard
Long Beach's favorite frenemy, John Morris
Miguel Vasconcellos
Long Beach's favorite frenemy, John Morris

Everything within the walls of this building materialized in less than 90 days last summer, thanks to Trojan Builders' Chris Cantella, whose regular work is a bit more rarified; a Newport Beach mansion he constructed won a seven-page spread in the August 2010 edition of Better Homes and Gardens. But the developer is proud of this dispensary, not least because he completed it just in time to qualify for a crucial certificate of occupancy from the city of Long Beach that makes it currently legal. [5]

"We had every city inspector here," he says. "It was a long, tedious process, but we stuck in there and jumped through every hoop. I'm only here because the city of Long Beach opened the front door and said, 'Come on down.'"

But the city's commitment to medical marijuana wasn't as solid as Avalon Wellness Collective [6] had assumed. In the fall of 2011, just as Avalon Wellness Collective opened its doors, Long Beach began considering a ban on medical marijuana despite having legalized collectives a year earlier. City attorney Robert Shannon led the charge, citing an ongoing federal crackdown on storefront dispensaries in California that has seen the Obama administration launch unexpected raids and property seizures against growers and landlords. Shannon also cited a lawsuit filed by Ryan Pack and Anthony Gayle, two patients who had obtained cannabis from two clubs that failed to win in a controversial Nov. 20, 2010, lottery run by city bureaucrats, which picked several dozen locations (including Avalon Wellness Center) for permits to open dispensaries; those that didn't win were raided and shut down. According to the plaintiffs, the city has no right to regulate a substance that is illegal under federal law.

So far, the council has voted twice to delay its vote, but if it bans storefront dispensaries, it will hardly be the most bizarre turn of events in Long Beach's surreal war on weed, one in which the council members who favor medical marijuana voted against legalizing it, and those opposed to legalization voted yes, and where the city rakes in millions in pot-related fees and fines, simultaneously permitting and prosecuting various cannabis clubs. Perhaps the least surprising detail is that the FBI is reportedly investigating allegations of official corruption in Long Beach.

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If anyone personifies the transition from good to bad vibes that has befallen Long Beach's ill-fated foray into the medical-marijuana business, it's John Morris. The silver-haired ex-rugby player in his early 60s has a vaguely English accent; his tendency to end sentences with words such as "babe" and "love" betrays his Liverpudlian roots. After emigrating, Morris settled in Long Beach in 1972; seven years later, he opened the famed Legends Sports Bar on Second Street in Belmont Shore. In 1988, he pioneered the revival of Pine Street by opening Mum's, an upscale steakhouse and jazz bar, and later Smooth's Sports Grille, which closed in 2010, owing the city $147,000 in unpaid loans.

For several years, Morris served as the president of Downtown Long Beach Associates, often clashing with the city over redevelopment, but also charming much of city hall—as well as the newsroom of the Long Beach Press Telegram and other local publications. If he was one of the most powerful businessmen in Long Beach, he was also one of the most outspoken, especially against the city's centerpiece redevelopment project of the 1990s, the Pike at Rainbow Harbor.

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