Orange County Bids Farewell to Storefront Marijuana Dispensaries

The medical-marijuana bubble has officially burst in California.

Until recently, anyone with a $20 doctor's note and a hankering for Hindu Kush could walk into his or her corner marijuana dispensary—one of hundreds and possibly thousands of such operations throughout the state—and walk out minutes later with a jar full of 100 percent legal weed. But after three years of allowing the state's medical-pot industry to explode, the Obama administration began cracking down on marijuana growers and distributors in late 2011. Cities that hadn't already banned storefront dispensaries began doing so, and raids and property seizures in Orange County quickly mounted, first in Costa Mesa and South County, then Anaheim and Santa Ana.

On May 6, the California Supreme Court upheld Riverside's ban on dispensaries, effectively stating that any city in the state that wanted to prohibit such clubs were free to do so. By the time that ruling came down, you'd be hard put to find a single storefront in Orange County, with the exception of a handful in Santa Ana and Garden Grove, the latter of which ordered all dispensaries to shut down by May 14 or face immediate raids and fines of $1,000 per day.

“I've heard rumors the city will be sending out the SWAT Team,” says Marla James, president of the Orange County chapter of Americans for Safe Access, the nation's largest medical-marijuana activist group. “They will be arresting people.”

James works for Patient Med-Aid, a dispensary that was the focus of a feature story last year (see “Sick Enough to Smoke,” Nov. 21, 2012). At the time, the club operated in Anaheim, but it had to move after city officials collaborated with federal drug authorities to threaten landlords who rent to dispensaries, including an Iranian-American couple who stand to lose a $1.5 million retirement property because of $37 worth of medical pot purchased by an undercover cop at a since-shuttered tenant-collective. Now, Patient Med-Aid operates in Sunset Beach, although its future is uncertain. “We're working with the city to find a location in an industrial zone,” James explains. “But I have to say it's a bitch to find a landlord who will rent to us.”

Although the era of storefront pot collectives seems to have drawn to a dramatic close, those businesses aren't shutting down without a fight. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) has introduced a bill that would force the federal government to stop interfering in states that have legalized marijuana for medical or recreational purposes. On May 13 in Riverside, Democratic Party activists passed a resolution calling for state legislators to draw up regulations that would allow dispensaries to operate legally.

Paul Lucas, an OC-based activist, says he tried to get 35 members of the county's Democratic Party central committee to call for a Cannabis and Hemp Caucus but fell short by 15 names. “The unfortunate truth is that even with [Lieutenant Governor] Gavin Newsome coming out to support full legalization, Democrats are squishy about this issue mostly due to not knowing the facts and the fear of being seen as soft on crime,” Lucas says.

One such Democrat would be Garden Grove's Bruce Broadwater, whose son struggled with drug addiction and who has often attacked medical marijuana as a gateway drug. “What I hear from Mayor Broadwater is that dispensaries are full of kids who come in for pot,” James says. “We don't have kids coming in to our dispensary; we have adults. We give marijuana away to people with really severe diseases. When the city shuts down the dispensaries, the gang members will sit out front and wait for patients to come up and start dealing. It will bring that criminal element back to Garden Grove. You don't want a 68-year-old lady with cancer dealing with a cartel in a back alley, but it's going to end up that way.”


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