SP medical marijuana dispensary stays low-key

July 04, 2006

Kristin S. Agostoni, The Daily Breeze (LA County)

The only hints of what sits behind the seemingly empty San Pedro storefront are the "members only" notice in the window and the group's small initials on the door.

As the buzzer sounds, a security guard answers and asks visitors for identification. They make the obligatory pass through the metal detector, then listen for their names to be called inside a waiting area with high ceilings, bamboo plants and concrete floors.

The founders of Nature's Way Compassion Group would prefer their medical marijuana dispensary operate this way, with a clientele they can control and get to know in a place that doesn't stand out from its surroundings. In fact, drivers headed down Pacific Avenue could miss the dispensary's abbreviated name and blank facade without an address in hand.

"As strong as we feel about what we're doing, there is a concern about security, also a fear of being burglarized," said one of the three Nature's Way founders, who asked that he be called only by his first name, Rich.

"It takes a lot of money. A lot of time. A lot of worrying," he said. "You kind of live in paranoia."

The anxiety stems not only from concerns about crime, but the nature of the business itself. Although Nature's Way Compassion Group got a business tax certificate to operate in the San Pedro building last September, Rich knows he is in a somewhat precarious position because Los Angeles has yet to adopt an ordinance regulating pot dispensaries.

Nor have other South Bay cities, as evidenced in the emergency moratoriums that city councils have approved over the past few months. Last week, Redondo Beach and Hawthorne joined Lawndale and Hermosa Beach in adopting 45-day bans as they decide how to regulate a use that is not outlined in their zoning codes and is inconsistent in state and federal laws.

Recently, Redondo Beach officials said they denied an application to a business wanting to operate near Pacific Coast Highway and Herondo Street.

"It's fraught with problems because you want to follow state law and you want to follow federal law, and they conflict here," Redondo Beach City Attorney Mike Webb said. "You've got that difficult situation, if you haven't addressed it."

Rich, a 30-year-old longshoreman who has used medical marijuana in the past for panic attacks and severe anxiety, said the founders of Nature's Way didn't want to wait for the city to pass an ordinance. He said they filed an application with the city stating an intent to sell medical marijuana.

"We figured if we get the business license, we'll go ahead and do it. We told them what we are," Rich said. "They're not stopping us."

The Los Angeles Office of Finance confirmed that Nature's Way began operating as a medical cannabis dispensary last fall, but a department employee said the collective has not applied for its 2006 business tax certificate.

Nature's Way operates inside an old building Rich and the others tried to refurbish with a "relaxed feeling." A sectional red couch sits between coffee tables holding magazines and vases of bamboo.

One recent weeknight, a handful of people flashed identification to a guard named Jose.

Among them was San Pedro resident Gary Hull, a bearded man with a booming voice who said he buys pot for a list of ailments: post-traumatic stress disorder, ulcers, a spinal cord injury, among others.

If Nature's Way Compassion Group doesn't have what he needs, Hull said, he makes the drive to dispensaries in Long Beach and Los Angeles.

He hands a small card to a reporter as proof of his doctor's permission, a requirement for people who use pot for medical purposes in California.

Hull said he's tried prescription drugs like MS-Contin, Valium and Xanax, but that the side effects only added to his problems. So, since 1995, about the same time he started lobbying for the passage of the state's Compassionate Use Act, Hull said he's relied on marijuana to help him escape the pain.

"I smoke every day," Hull said. "I'm one of the pioneers for hemp."

Smoking isn't allowed at Nature's Way, a misconception Rich said he and the others confront fairly often.

In fact, Rich said he was once opposed to marijuana use and only considered it for medical purposes after others suggested it.

"They probably think we're all in here smoking like the stereotypical hippies," Rich said. "I tried everything, that's why I (turned to) marijuana. It worked OK. Honestly, I felt it was the safest. ... When I was younger, I never touched it."

Like many customers, Rich said he preferred the dispensary's "edibles," like the chocolate chip oatmeal cookies the dispensary packages in plastic wrappers with warning labels stating they contain hemp. They sell for $5 each.

Pot prices vary depending on the ratio of "indica" to "sativa," which are different strains of cannabis that users say give them different highs. A menu lists more than two dozen varieties -- including Bubba Kush, Juicy Fruit, Snow Cap and Strawberry Cough -- and the ratio for each.

On Hull's recent visit, he bought 1-gram bags of White Widow and Cherry AK47, for roughly $20 apiece.

The pot comes from vendors who have a doctor's permission to use medical marijuana, Rich said, just like any other Nature's Way customer.

"Everyone who comes in here is kosher," he said. "You'll see young people in here who are terminally ill, a lot of people with arthritis. ...

"We don't pry, but you'd be surprised."

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