To understand the insanity at the heart of California's love-hate relationship with medical marijuana, one need look no further than a low-end strip mall on Raymond Way just off El Toro Boulevard near Interstate 5 in Lake Forest. It's a somewhat decrepit-looking series of stores that stretches around the parking lot, one corner of which is occupied by a Montessori school. It's easy to miss that five of the storefronts belong to marijuana clubs.
Although marijuana is illegal under federal law, it's legal for medical purposes in California, and Lake Forest, which is one of only two Orange County cities (the other is Dana Point) that don't require business licenses, has no ban against cannabis clubs on the books. Such apparent laxity may explain the huge influx of them over the past few years, which has left city officials scrambling to sue them out of existence, alleging they violate Lake Forest's municipal code, leading to a legal standoff that is likely to last years.
In May 2010, Orange County Superior Court Judge David Chaffee ruled in favor of Lake Forest and ordered the clubs to shut down. Several of them voluntarily closed, but others appealed the decision and were allowed to reopen. Then, on Jan. 1, a new state law took effect banning pot clubs from operating within 600 feet of a school. On April 26, citing the fact that the five dispensaries that continued to operate at the Raymond Way location were next door to the Montessori school, Chaffee issued a temporary restraining order against them; the clubs shut down once again.
But on May 9, Chaffee lifted the temporary order against those clubs until he could sort out all the competing legal claims being made by lawyers for both the city and the clubs. The dispensaries immediately opened for business. The hearing is scheduled to resume on Friday.
The most basic question is whether the marijuana clubs pose a public “nuisance,” as claimed by lawyers for Lake Forest, or if they are providing a vital service for residents in South County, where medicinal cannabis is becoming harder to obtain. “These businesses are a nuisance,” Jeffrey Dunn, an attorney for Lake Forest, told Chaffee at the May 9 hearing. “There have been thefts and burglaries at these dispensaries, [plus] public urination and an assault on a police officer.”
Lawyers for the five clubs make the opposite claim. “Because Lake Forest doesn't have a ban on medical marijuana, there is no way for them to effectively argue you can't do business in their city,” said Christopher Glew, who represents two of the clubs, Cafe Vale Tudo and Florentina Organic, as well as collectives elsewhere in the city. “For the city to do that, it has to take the affirmative step of initiating a ban or some type of restriction on that activity, which they haven't done yet.”
Indeed, in the May 9 hearing, Chaffee wondered aloud why Lake Forest had neither a ban on medical marijuana nor a requirement that dispensaries obtain a business license. Dunn responded by claiming that the fact the city had no such ban or licensing procedure was irrelevant because the clubs were “not a permitted use, so we don't have a license requirement for businesses that aren't allowed.” He added that this, combined with the new state law creating the 600-feet-from-a-school buffer zone, meant the clubs were illegal.
Then there's the question of whether the Montessori school, which opened in 1994, is really a school as defined in the new state law, which includes both public and private schools that teach kindergarten through high school, but not pre-kindergarten or daycare centers.
“There doesn't seem to be any dispute that there is a kindergarten in this school,” Dunn argued at the May 9 hearing, citing a sworn declaration submitted by the facility. “It has teachers accredited to teach kindergarten, and 10 out of 20 students are taking kindergarten classes there five days a week.”
That school's declaration failed to impress Glew. “The school holds itself out as a daycare facility,” he told Chaffee. “If all that is required is a declaration saying you are a kindergarten school, then all the collectives all over Lake Forest could be shut down because anybody could just say 'I'm a kindergarten,' and that's all anybody would know.”
Montessori Children's School House didn't return a telephone call seeking comment for this story.
Dino Retuchi, manager of the Cafe Vale Tudo, located adjacent to the school, said it was unfair for the city to go after the cannabis clubs in court. “I don't understand why they target us all the time,” Retuchi says. “We're willing to work with the city and the police to follow their guidelines.” Retuchi acknowledged that his club was raided in March 2010, along with the since-shuttered 215 Agenda, whose owner, Mark Moen, was the subject of a subsequent Weekly cover story (see “Marijuana Martyr,” April 29, 2010). But he claimed the raid only targeted one employee of the club who also worked at 215 Agenda, which was the true target of the raid.
“The raid was just because of one volunteer,” Retuchi says. “The original owner isn't with us now. We made a lot of changes since I've been here. I fired everyone who worked here, hired new employees. We have our own farmers and no vendors. We don't allow people to medicate onsite, and if people are loitering outside, we push them out. We want to coexist in the community.”
Meanwhile, several disabled Orange County residents who were members of the shuttered clubs also sued Lake Forest, charging that the city was violating their rights under the Americans With Disabilities Act. (The lawsuit also named the city of Costa Mesa as a defendant.) U.S. District Judge Andrew Guilford threw out the suit in April 2010, citing the fact that the plaintiffs used marijuana, which “has no medical purpose.” The lawsuit is currently being considered by the 9th District Court of Appeals.
One of the plaintiffs in that case is Marla James, a paraplegic who is president of the Orange County chapter of Americans for Safe Access. “I should have the right to go to any of these collectives,” James says. “That's why I'm hoping that Lake Forest won't be able to shut them down.”
A resident of Huntington Beach, which has banned medical marijuana, James adds that she has no choice but to travel to dispensaries in cities such as Lake Forest to obtain her state-sanctioned medicine. “I'm in a wheelchair,” she says. “I have one leg and am going blind. If I could get up on two feet, which I don't have, and grow my own plants, I would.”
This article appeared in print as “Pot Clubs Getting Schooled? The Montessori center next door is part of Lake Forest's latest effort to boot medical marijuana dispensaries.”
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).