OC WEEKLY STORY ON MEDPOT A DISTURBING LOOK AT LONG BEACH OFFICIALSBy Dave Wielenga
Editor’s note: Award-winning investigative reporter and author Nick Schou of OC Weekly strides purposefully into the controversy surrounding the City of Long Beach’s murky-is-putting-it-nicely position on medical marijuana this week. He comes back with a no-stoned-unturned account that clarifies practically nothing about the policy … but leaves the very strong sense that truly collaborating on one doesn’t seem to be a priority for city officials. Inasmuch as reaching consensus on the terms and enforcement of policy is pretty much the point of government, Schou’s months of research, interviews and observation serve as a fact-laden (and checked) case study of an aberrant institutional culture at Long Beach City Hall. The portrait that coagulates from the pixels of Schou’s hard facts is a cross-purposed assortment of upwardly aspirant politicians, compromised bureaucrats, well-connected insiders and calculating underminers, all indulging in something like government-by-feeding frenzy. And when the behavior in Schou’s story is considered in the context of the City of Long Beach’s long history of absurd and wasteful decisions, it may explain a lot. Not everything, of course, although some Long Beach officials may someday get their chance. Schou reports that he interviewed more than one person who told him that FBI investigators had already been there asking questions.
BY NICK SCHOU / OC WEEKLY
Except for the oversized green cross painted on the wall and the acrylic sign with the olive-colored marijuana seed inside the letter O, Avalon Wellness Collective looks exactly like all the other razor-wire-topped, one-story buildings that line the west side of the 710 freeway. Six months ago, the 8,000-square-foot, charcoal-gray building, located in an industrial neighborhood of north-central Long Beach, was just an empty warehouse; now, a state-of-the-art, one-stop cannabis cultivation-and-distribution center operates inside, built to exacting city specifications.
Everything within the walls of this building materialized in less than 90 days last summer, thanks to Trojan Builders’ Chris Cantella, whose regular work is a bit more rarified; a Newport Beach mansion he constructed won a seven-page spread in the August 2010 edition of Better Homes and Gardens. But the developer is proud of this dispensary, not least because he completed it just in time to qualify for a crucial certificate of occupancy from the city ofLong Beach that makes it currently legal. Cantella estimates he has sunk at least $400,000 into the construction project, money he can ill-afford to gamble: When the real-estate market bubble collapsed in 2008, his earnings dropped from $3 million per year to nothing.
“We had every city inspector here,” he says. “It was a long, tedious process, but we stuck in there and jumped through every hoop. I’m only here because the city ofLong Beachopened the front door and said, ‘Come on down.’”
But the city’s commitment to medical marijuana wasn’t as solid as Cantella had assumed. In the fall of 2011, just as Avalon Wellness Collective opened its doors, Long Beachbegan considering a ban on medical marijuana despite having legalized collectives a year earlier. City attorney Robert Shannon led the charge, citing an ongoing federal crackdown on storefront dispensaries in California that has seen the Obama administration launch unexpected raids and property seizures against growers and landlords. Shannon also cited a lawsuit filed by Ryan Pack and Anthony Gayle, two patients who had obtained cannabis from two clubs that failed to win in a controversial Nov. 20, 2010, lottery run by city bureaucrats, which picked several dozen locations (including Avalon Wellness Center) for permits to open dispensaries; those that didn’t win were raided and shut down. According to the plaintiffs, the city has no right to regulate a substance that is illegal under federal law.
So far, the council has voted twice to delay its vote, but if it bans storefront dispensaries, it will hardly be the most bizarre turn of events in Long Beach’s surreal war on weed, one in which the council members who favor medical marijuana voted against legalizing it, and those opposed to legalization voted yes, and where the city rakes in millions in pot-related fees and fines, simultaneously permitting and prosecuting various cannabis clubs. Perhaps the least surprising detail is that the FBI is reportedly investigating allegations of official corruption inLong Beach.
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If anyone personifies the transition from good to bad vibes that has befallen Long Beach’s ill-fated foray into the medical-marijuana business, it’s John Morris.