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Inside The Cannabis Clubs

The first sign this is a different kind of medical clinic is probably the locked door and the buzzer. When you do get inside, the empty waiting room and your own bristling peach fuzz say you’re being watched. It looks like a doctor’s office, except you can’t see who’s behind that big black pane of tinted glass gracing the front desk. But the ultimate tell is the smell: skunk-rich, sweet, spicy weed.

You’ve just entered a world of hazy legality, a place where federal and local laws clash, where the terminally ill come to seek relief from their pain and others doubtless come to get their fix. It’s a place that is becoming ubiquitous in Los Angeles—the medical marijuana dispensary.

Not all of L.A.’s pot clubs—and no one is sure exactly how many exist—are set up like interrogation rooms or made over like the Jolly Green Giant. But dispensaries in L.A. seem to be cropping up like poppies in Afghanistan. They can be garish or discreet, spooky converted motels or friendly neighborhood stores. But despite their pseudo-legal status, their proliferation has been causing city council members quite the political headache.

This dispensary was denied a hardship exemption by the city council, yet continues to operate. Credit: Brian Frank

Since the council passed a moratorium on new dispensaries in 2007, individuals and local collectives have filed nearly 800 hardship exemption applications, claiming they should be allowed to operate despite the new ordinance. During the same period the council has managed to issue decisions on fewer than 100 of them, most often, if not always, voting to deny the application. But a fair number open their doors for business anyway, blatantly, if quietly, scoffing the law.

I got a taste of this underground cannabis club atmosphere while helping producer Karen Foshay put together a follow-up to a story she did earlier this year with correspondent Judy Muller. Karen has been taking a close look at how the city has regulated this growing industry since she last checked.

Karen compiled a list of rejected applicants and sent my SoCal Connected colleague Lata Pandya and me out to see if we could find any of these rogue clinics.

Of the 28 places we visited over two days, we discovered 11 that appeared still to be open and dispensing marijuana (and that number could be higher, since a few of these shops simply may not have been open when we stopped by).

We saw people coming in and out. We entered the clinics, spoke to receptionists or security guards, and in many cases were told exactly which doctors we could see and exactly what to tell them to get a referral. These places weren’t just open; they were actively trying to get new clients.

One place downtown had a storefront tinted so dark you couldn’t see inside. The man behind the counter was concealed by more dark glass. After I stood there dumbly for a few seconds, a tin-can voice emitted from some invisible speaker snapped, "Follow the instructions on the sign, sir."

The instructions, taped to the glass, told patients to sign in and put their referral card in the tray at the base of the window. Realizing my host was just a couple feet away even though I couldn’t see him, I tried to look where I expected his eyes might be.

"I don’t have a card," I said.

An instant of silence, then a business card appeared in the tray. "Go see a doctor. That’s your first step," the voice said. The card listed a few doctors who for anywhere from $50 to $100 would give you a referral for medical marijuana.

To be fair, we found properties listed on the applications that were clearly vacant. In one case, the property appeared to be occupied instead by a bail bond agency. But the cannabis clubs that have remained open despite the city’s ruling are so far getting away with it.

Perhaps the perfect example was one clinic located in what looked like a dingy mixed-use building in the San Fernando Valley. It occupied the last suite on the right at the end of a long hallway shared by—you guessed it—at least one or two other dispensaries. Pot fumes wafted all the way out to the sidewalk. When I rang the bell, I was greeted with the theme song from the Jetsons. I was practically singing along: "Meet—George—Jetson!"

But the best part: just a few doors down, sharing the same smoky hallway with the pot shops was an office for the City of Los Angeles Parking Violations Bureau. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it.

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