In a county where there were once hundreds of pot shops, now there are 29, and they are all in Santa Ana.
Nearly six months after the state Supreme Court ruled municipalities can ban storefront marijuana dispensaries using their land-use powers, Orange County cities and law enforcement have run out most of the shops selling to medical marijuana patients.
Garden Grove closed more than 60 shops after the May 6 decision, said Community Development Director Susan Emery.
In south Orange County, a lengthy fight by three cities to close more than 50 dispensaries culminated when Laguna Niguel’s Suite A Laguna Health was shuttered in late August.
But the road to closures wasn’t always the same and became increasingly confusing and costly for some city governments. Sometimes they looked to their neighbors for legal advice.
A 2014 statewide legalization initiative and local citywide voter initiatives could still undermine efforts, experts say. A recent Gallup poll, meanwhile, shows 58 percent of Americans favor legalizing marijuana.
Meanwhile, many storefront dispensaries have transformed themselves into pot delivery services, which are harder for cities to track and regulate. The websiteweedmaps.com shows a freeway of little green trucks rolling across Orange County.
Patients who use marijuana under a doctor’s advice say they don’t trust the rolling services, and legalization advocates say the tight regulations are driving others back to the black market.
“In some ways, it’s kind of futile,” said Josh Meisel, a Humboldt State University sociology professor and co-chair of the Humboldt Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research. “If anything, it creates an inconvenience for users or people with a really legitimate medical need.”
A string of cases attempted to interpret California’s medical marijuana law – approved by voters in 1996 – and provide guidance for cities and counties that want to limit pot shops. Their conflicting opinions were no surprise, however, considering marijuana continues to be illegal under federal law.
Cities including Lake Forest, Dana Point and Laguna Niguel were already largely successful in forcing out dispensaries before the Supreme Court ruling. But it cost them. The cities spent about $2 million over the past five years in legal fees fighting marijuana. There’s a chance to recoup some of that. Dana Point, for example, has received more than $2.5 million in awards from three lawsuits against dispensaries. The penalties were for violating health and safety codes and laws against unfair competition.
Dana Point has collected one $20,000 check so far, said City Attorney Patrick Munoz.
Laguna Niguel spent close to $90,000 over three years in its effort to close Suite A Laguna Health, owned by Jason Bolding, said City Attorney Terry Dixon.
“What made it take so long was you had all these conflicting Court of Appeal opinions on whether or not cities could ban dispensaries,” he said.
South County supported others in fighting dispensaries, Dixon said. The law firm Best Best & Krieger and its Irvine-based lawyer, Jeffrey Dunn, had already seen success in Lake Forest, where 38 pot shops were shut down in 2011. Dunn also represented Laguna Niguel and Riverside’s Supreme Court case.
Laguna Niguel officials “were well aware of what was happening in Dana Point,” he said, where that city forced six dispensaries to close.
“Everybody knew what everybody was doing,” Dixon said. “I asked (Best Best & Krieger) to handle the Laguna Niguel case because of the success they had in Lake Forest.”
Sometimes the federal government played a part, too.
Despite recent promises by President Barack Obama to not prevent patients from obtaining the drug, federal prosecutors still cracked down on dispensaries, including in Orange County.
Agents with the Drug Enforcement Agency raided the shop Suite A Laguna Health several months ago, the owner said, before he eventually closed.
Dixon explained the DOJ was initially involved with enforcement in Lake Forest and Costa Mesa. When Suite A Laguna Health was the last in South County, federal agents continued their interest, Dixon said.
Garden Grove took a different tactic. Unable to afford thousands in legal expenses, the city turned to a registration ordinance in an attempt to corral dispensaries, said Emery, the community development director.
“We thought, ‘Maybe this is a reality, maybe it’s not going to go away,’” she said. “But we can limit where it’s going to be, how it’s going to operate.”
After the court decision, Garden Grove said dispensaries had to close immediately or face $1,000 per day in fines. It worked.
“From the standpoint of what we had a year ago, shopping centers being overrun by them, that’s gone,” Emery said. “You just don’t see them anymore.”
That leaves Santa Ana as Orange County’s last holdout for the traditional storefront pot shop, though the number dropped from 59 in May to 17 in June and is now back up to 29, said city spokesman Jose Gonzalez.
Five Santa Ana dispensaries contacted by phone this week declined to talk about their business.
Up to voters
Local voter initiatives might be a solution for some dispensary owners, such as Suite A Laguna Health owner Bolding, who said in August he planned to start gathering signatures after his shop was closed.
The controversy locally and in the rest of the state will likely continue. A group called the California Cannabis Hemp & Health Initiative has been cleared by the secretary of state to start gathering signatures for a statewide legalization initiative in 2014. Voters in Washington state and Colorado made pot legal last year.
A failed bill by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, would have allowed more state cannabis regulation and created a new wing of the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to license and oversee medical marijuana. It failed, but not before getting Dana Point concerned. A city staff report said that the bill “would drastically limit, and in some circumstances eliminate, the local control currently exercised by cities over marijuana dispensaries.”
State bills and local initiatives are the kind of incremental legislation that could eventually legalize marijuana in this state. But it might not happen until 2016, said Jason Plume, a political science researcher with the Humboldt Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research.
And what would full legalization mean for Orange County’s shops? Would some be allowed back?
“We’ve thought about it, because we’ve started on that registration system,” said Emery of Garden Grove.
“A lot of cities will be scrambling.”
For Orange County’s medical marijuana patients, the Supreme Court decision and subsequent closures mean frustration and inconvenience. They’ve turned to shops in Los Angeles or to delivery services, which some say feel sketchy.
“Especially since that last collective shut down, I’ve had people show up trying find their medicine,” said Kandice Hawes of Orange County NORML, a group that works to reform marijuana laws. “People are kind of freaking out,” she said.
Laguna Beach resident Ed Steinfeld is one of Suite A Laguna Health’s former customers who came to the Laguna Niguel shop twice a week. Before that, he went to a shop in Laguna Beach. There were 1,300 patients who came to the shop, said Jason Bolding, the owner.
After he had major knee surgery two decades ago, Steinfeld says the drug has helped him weather the pain. “It’s really inconvenient” now, said Steinfeld, 50, who said he has resorted to delivery services or driving to dispensaries in L.A.
Hawes said she too has heard concerns about delivery services. Patients often don’t want to meet strangers in a parking lot or allow them into their home, she said.
In her hometown of Lake Forest, action against any kind of dispensary is swift, she said. “If one collective pops up, they are there in days, trying to shut it down,” she said. “Nobody wants to be seen as the one city in South County that would allow marijuana collectives.”
By LUKE RAMSETH / ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
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