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Time to end the marijuana charade?

It's no longer about whether 'medical marijuana' is being used only by people who are in pain or ill.

June 08, 2010|Sandy Banks

When Brent Poer moved into his quaint Los Feliz home a year ago, he knew the boxy green building at the corner of his cul-de-sac was a marijuana dispensary.

He figured coexisting with Hyperion Healing would be easy. "I honestly thought that potheads would be really cool and laid-back," said Poer, a 42-year-old advertising executive.

Instead, he said, he wound up confronting strangers who blocked his driveway, left trash on the street, parked outside his neighbors' homes blasting music and smoking weed. He ticks off a list of crimes —garages burglarized, car windows broken, thefts from homes — that neighbors blame on dispensary visitors.

You can count Poer among the legions of Los Angeles residents grateful that city officials have begun cracking down on dispensaries, contending that most violate the state law allowing the "compassionate" use of marijuana to treat medical ills.

"Philosophically, I'm fine with the law," said Poer. "If people are in pain, need help, I'm not one to stand in their way. But you look at the clientele [at Hyperion], you don't see a lot of people limping their way in. This is like legalized drug dealing; a way to make money, not to help someone."

But there's a dark side to the crackdown that stands to make life even more difficult forPoer and his neighbors on Udell Court.

The city plans to shut down 400 marijuana outlets that opened in the last two years. But Hyperion Healing isn't among them. That means hundreds of customers with no place to go will be looking for new sources of medical relief.

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I understand why Poer feels protective about his street, a steep, narrow stretch lined with bungalows that look like gingerbread houses, flanked by tidy gardens and towering trees. I visited the street on Saturday. Halfway up the block from Hyperion Avenue, the whir of traffic was drowned out by the songs of birds.

Down below, Hyperion Healing was doing brisk business, its black metal gates clanging open and shut, its red-and-blue neon sign flashing. I watched for almost an hour as cars blocked side streets, double-parked and lined up for the two parking spaces in front of the shop.

There were several empty metered spaces where I parked, two short blocks away. But it's an uphill walk; I guess that's too much to expect of people on the way to get their medicine.

I say that, of course, tongue in cheek, in the same way that customers call themselves "patients" and marijuana shops call themselves "collectives."

It's no longer about whether " medical marijuana" is being used only by people who are in pain or ill. Whatever Californians intended when they approved the law, the result has been virtually open access to pot and a flourishing underground economy that government has been shut out of.

Patients rate their shops at websites such as Yelp, and no one is talking about their health.

Hyperion customers like the samples — "free gram to all new patients" — the "chill" attitude, the video games and big-screen TV, the frequent-buyer program that rewards customers for every dollar spent, the high-quality strains such as AK-47 and White Widow.

"I get the compassionate thing," said Poer. "But when you see people park on your street, carrying McDonald's bags and an X-box 360, walking down to the dispensary to hang out … that's a clubhouse, not a pharmacy."

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Two days in, there are signs that the city's crackdown is working. Three dispensaries in my neighborhood have shut their doors — including one a few blocks away from my daughters' high school. On the five-mile drive from Hyperion to my downtown office on Monday, I passed three shuttered outlets with green crosses, including one across the street from Hyperion.

Some neighborhoods have felt under siege by the pot shops that sprouted on every block. And some of them openly flouted the law, catering to underage customers and those without medical documents. Many were magnets for crime and chaos.

But Los Angeles' problems were created by official inaction and made worse by politicians' clumsy, overblown response. Shutting down 400 dispensaries will relieve the strain on some neighborhoods, but the pot smokers aren't going to disappear.

New delivery services are popping up, pot farms are sprouting in foreclosed homes, street dealers are gearing up. This weekend, medical marijuana evaluation centers were doing a brisk business, writing recommendations for new patients who worry that the crackdown will make it harder to buy weed.

Maybe it's time to stop the charade. Legalizing marijuana — the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act, it's called — is on the ballot in California this fall, and almost half the state's voters say they support it.

If all those folks cruising around neighborhoods like Brent Poer's can put their bongs down and make it to the voting booth in November's general election, they might not only solve their parking problem, but help relieve our state's financial headache.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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