Weeding out the pot merchants

LOS ANGELES — A city inspector dropped by the Bulldog Cafe Collective last week to see if it was still in business. It was. Inside the spare, modern interior, dusky green marijuana buds were still displayed in plastic jars. An owner who is often at the store tweezed whimsically named strains into small vials for customers.

The store west of downtown is among the first 14 medical marijuana dispensaries targeted for extinction by a City Council chagrined that it allowed hundreds to open in Los Angeles despite a 21-month-old moratorium.

The inspections start the process to shut them down. At least one has closed. But others remain open, weighing their legal options.

City officials plan to decide this week on the next enforcement step. .As the council embarks on its effort to roll back the number of dispensaries,, it faces some obstacles.

The task requires hearings that could tie up the planning committee for hundreds of hours. The hearings have been rocky, as council members have struggled with complicated issues and dispensary operators have charged that they were being railroaded. And, if dispensaries refuse to buckle, the city could face costly court battles.

One of the Bulldog Cafe's owners, Anthony Folsom, said the rush to close dispensaries would hurt responsible businesspeople and Los Angeles.

"The city seems to be caving to political pressure," he said. "People who are in it for the right reason are going to get out, and what they are going to be left with is drug dealers."

The council wound up in this situation because it failed to act on dispensaries' applications for hardship exemptions from the moratorium. That inaction, which lasted almost 17 months, encouraged dispensaries to open; the city attorney's office had decided it could not take dispensaries to court until the council denied their applications.

In the past few months, applications poured in.

On June 9, when the council voted to stop accepting them, there were about 550. The decision did not become effective until last week. By then, the total had hit 883.

"That's a huge number," Reyes said. "Thank God we stopped it."

The moratorium does not spell out what qualifies a dispensary for a hardship exemption, and the city attorney's office has advised the council only that its decisions must be fair and rational.

That vague advice led Councilman Richard Alarcon to warn recently that the city could find itself snarled in lawsuits.

"This is a very dangerous road we're going down," he said. "It's going to cost us a ton of money."

Reyes has held just two hearings, on the Bulldog Cafe and New Age Wellness, a dispensary that has not opened. They were marked by awkward moments. Council aides presented some inaccurate and unverified information, and Reyes tried to silence the dispensaries' attorneys when they responded to it.

At one point, Stewart Richlin, the attorney for New Age Wellness, leaped up and cried out, "I'd like to challenge that. That's hearsay within hearsay." He kept interrupting until he made his point, which turned out to be correct.

Reyes made no apologies for the procedures.

"It's not a debate. It's a hearing," he said. "If it was a debate, I would never finish an item."

The council's decision to reject the applications from the Bulldog Cafe and New Age Wellness suggests it is unlikely to grant many exemptions.

The Bulldog Cafe was one of 186 dispensaries that met all of the city's requirements to operate during the moratorium. But its owners say they were forced to move from North Hollywood by their landlord, who received a letter from the Drug Enforcement Administration that threatened the landlord with felony charges.

The move required them to get a hardship exemption from the City Council to be allowed to open in a different location.

"This, I think, is the classic hardship case," said Thomas J. Gray, the Bulldog Cafe's attorney.

Many of the city's legal dispensaries, possibly more than 50, filed similar applications when their landlords evicted them after receiving DEA letters. The council appears disinclined to give the letters much weight.

That dismays medical marijuana advocates who believe these dispensaries followed the rules.

"I don't understand why the city is going to be hostile with them," said Dege Coutee, who runs the Patient Advocacy Network.

In denying the Bulldog Cafe's application, Reyes noted that the store had moved into the same block as a branch library, calling that "an overwhelming factor."

Cindy Chvatal, head of the neighborhood's homeowners association, said many parents whose children use the library and a nearby preschool have objected to the dispensary's location.

The city has not adopted an ordinance to control dispensaries and has no restrictions on where they can operate. But, Reyes said, "We have enough common sense to know what we want and don't want."

The council is considering a proposal to keep them 1,000 feet from libraries and other places children frequent.

New Age Wellness claimed as its hardship that it could not open before the moratorium because of uncertainty caused by federal raids and confusion over the city's proposed rules.

Its owners also said they are veteran health care professionals. They said that they worked with city officials to plan their store so it would comply with any future ordinance and that they have spent at least $108,000.

"We have a lot at stake to lose," said Curt Moore, one of the owners.

But its coastal location also sparked concerns. Neighbors were already irritated by a nearby dispensary.

Whitney Blumenfeld, an aide to Councilman Bill Rosendahl, whose district includes Venice, urged the council to reject the "build it first and ask for forgiveness later" approach.

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