Residents worry that a new marijuana dispensary at Centinela Boulevard… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)
The Highland Park Patient Collective has been praised by Yelp reviewers for its sample room where patients can try their meds, its PlayStation 3 and stockpile of games and its cheap outdoor kush that's good for rolling blunts.
But don't expect the residents of Mar Vista to roll out the welcome mat when the collective moves into what used to be a landmark health food store.
The former Mrs. Gooch's market on the corner of Palms and Centinela has been mostly empty for 10 years. Locals cheered up when they saw renovations going on this summer. They imagined a coffee shop, a bakery, a yoga studio.
Instead, they'll be getting what's expected to be the city's largest marijuana dispensary.
The news has been percolating for months and drew more than 200 residents to the Mar Vista Recreation Center this week, demanding that city officials keep the marijuana dispensary out.
This was not a "Reefer Madness" crowd. Many prefaced their remarks by declaring approval of marijuana — medical or not. One speaker's solution drew loud applause: "Let's just legalize it," he said. "I would rather go to CVS or Whole Foods to buy my marijuana."
Most took pains to cast their opposition as practical, rather than provincial. "I'm not against weed. I am against stupid," said a man who lives a block from the market, which sits on a hard-to-navigate corner and has a tiny parking lot, with only one way in and out.
His is a narrow street with no sidewalks. "We'll have people walking in the streets," he said. "And guess what? They'll all be high. It's not an issue of whether weed is good or bad. It's a public safety issue. A property value issue."
Neighbors predicted a traffic nightmare. Parents railed about druggies and robbers. Real estate agents warned of home price drops. Who wants to pay $2 million for a modest house upwind from a giant pot shop?
The resistance seemed philosophically dissonant in such a liberal place, where the community newsletter includes a glowing tribute to former City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, a Mar Vista resident and ardent supporter of medical marijuana, which he buys and grows at home to manage his cancer pain.
But the outcry reflects the mess that marijuana regulation in this city has become, as politicians wasted years avoiding the issue while hundreds of dispensaries cropped up, run by owners who cared less about patients than profits.
Mar Vista's the kind of neighborhood I imagined living in when I moved from Ohio to California: quiet streets, big yards, convenient shopping and a bike ride from the beach. But I didn't know it existed.
"Until 10 years ago, it was a place that nobody knew about," said area Councilman Mike Bonin. "It was just the residential community near Venice Beach, on the other side of Lincoln."
Bonin, who moved from Venice to Mar Vista a few years ago, has seen the neighborhood blossom. There are new restaurants and coffee shops, a new fire station and post office, and a Farmers' Market every Sunday that always draws a crowd.
"It's really come alive," he said. "People are proud to live here now."
The contested corner is an eyesore. It was a fleeting home for a flower shop, a thrift store, a swap meet and the Peace and Freedom Party. "It's been sort of in limbo for a generation," Bonin said.
Angela Perez lives nearby. She insists this is not about Mar Vista progressives going NIMBY — not in my back yard — over pot. "I don't have an issue with marijuana. That's just a bad spot for retail. Any retail," she said.
She remembers perpetual gridlock 20 years ago, when health food shoppers jammed the parking lot and her family's driveway became a dangerous turnaround spot.
But beyond the very real issue of traffic, a sense of betrayal seems to fuel the campaign to keep the dispensary out.
Mar Vista overwhelmingly supported Proposition D, passed by voters last spring to limit the number of dispensaries and forbid them from operating near homes, schools or parks.
They presumed it would insulate them from situations like this. The former market is flanked on three sides by houses and apartments. There's already a dispensary a few blocks away, and four more within a few miles.
"Why do we need another dispensary anyway?" Perez asked. "Haven't we done our part?"
That's a question at the heart of the outcry: How much does a community owe to a cause that it supports?
There's nothing the city attorney can do now to keep the collective out. "Prop D empowers us to enforce the law when an illegal dispensary opens, but not before," spokesman Rob Wilcox said.
City Atty. Mike Feuer has moved to shut down 38 dispensaries since he took office last summer. But with hundreds more blatantly operating outside the law, it could take months, even years, to get rid of the Highland Park Collective.
Bonin considers this a litmus test of how serious Los Angeles really is about regulating the commerce of medical marijuana. He's pledged to keep the pressure on city officials and urged residents to do the same. "We are not going to be asleep at the switch," he promised.
And even before the meeting ended, a Change.Org petition to block the marijuana dispensary had been launched.