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Laguna Woods' retirees still await medical pot dispensary

Responding to some residents' quality-of-life pleas, the city last year OKd allowing a marijuana facility to set up shop. But so far no landlord has been willing to risk the wrath of Uncle Sam.

February 16, 2009|Paloma Esquivel

It's just past noon in Laguna Woods, and retired Navy pilot David Masters, 71, has just wrapped up 18 holes on the golf course. The scene beyond him is something out of a postcard: bright green grass framed by blue sky and snow-capped mountains. Just around the corner, a group of retirees pokes gentle fun at one another while they lawn bowl. And in a nearby clubhouse, another social club gathers to chat, share drinks and eat coffeecake.

Such is the pace of life in Laguna Woods, where residents of Laguna Woods Village, one of the largest retirement communities in the country, make up about 90% of the city. Here, the average age is 78, residents drive golf carts to the grocery store and the lawn bowling greens, and bridge games and social clubs are the stuff of daily life.

So are illness and pain. Conversation frequently touches on a litany of ailments everyone seems to share -- diabetes, arthritis, glaucoma, cancer -- though dwelling on such matters is something of a taboo. More than anything, people here say they are trying to cope with the realities of aging and illness while remaining engaged in this new phase of life, one in which they refuse to accept that retirement means being closed up and isolated.

This is why, city officials say, they voted late last year to approve an ordinance permitting medical marijuana to be sold in town, the only city in Orange County to endorse cannabis dispensaries.

"The purpose isn't to be spaced out," said Mayor Bob Ring, 75, who moved to the Village 20 years ago after retiring from his job as an executive at an electronics manufacturer. "The purpose is to make it so that it's worth getting up each day."

Applicants must agree to serve only city residents and show that they have a willing landlord. That last part has proved difficult, said City Manager Leslie Keane.

While the dust-up over marijuana dispensaries in Laguna Woods is different because of the age of its residents, cities throughout California have wrestled with issues surrounding dispensaries for years. Although several have adopted ordinances like the one in Laguna Woods that regulate where, how and when dispensaries can operate, the decision by landlords to rent to such operations is increasingly precarious. In recent years, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has warned landlords that they risk arrest and loss of their properties if they continue renting to dispensaries.

When the Laguna Woods decision was reported in the local news media, the city didn't have to look hard for applicants: More than 100 picked up applications at city offices and downloaded them from the city's website; but since then, not one has come back.

There are only a few shopping centers in the four square miles that make up this city, which is boxed between more youthful towns such as Laguna Beach and Aliso Viejo. Some are disqualified from housing a dispensary because they are too close to schools or similar facilities. But at least one that is eligible -- home to a few fast food restaurants, a dry cleaner, a discount furniture store, a large storage facility and several empty storefronts -- has told the city it does not have room for this type of business.

"There were at least some applicants who had real estate brokers to assist them in finding a place," said Keane. "We heard from a number of people who have similar facilities in other places . . . I have been told they are not able to find any property owners who will lease them space."

All of which has gone over poorly with some residents.

"I don't want to turn any of these old folks into criminals, sneaking down to the high school to buy marijuana and getting busted by the police," said Stu Venable, 80. "They need it if it's prescribed by their doctor."

It is difficult to imagine such controversy in the place born as Leisure World, one of several similarly named retirement communities founded in the 1960s by developer Ross Cortese. For his time, Cortese had a radical idea: that retirement was a second chance at life, one that could be enhanced by social clubs and never-ending activity. His gated communities helped redefine retirement living in America.

More than 30 years later, the city of Laguna Woods -- which has only a few hundred residents outside the gates of the retirement community -- was born, incorporated after residents' prolonged and ultimately successful battle against a new airport at the mothballed El Toro Marine base. It is one of the safest cities in the nation, officials say. On most days only one or two sheriff's deputies patrol, most often responding to calls about theft or burglary.

Today, the Village is home to nearly 18,000. Many are transplants from New York, New Jersey and Chicago; a significant number are Jewish retirees; two-thirds are female.

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