My Corner Pot Shop's Charm Offensive

POT SHOP, CALIFORNIAI live next to a place where people buy marijuana with great frequency. And not in the way that your neighbor upstairs pushes a few dime bags here and there-this is a full-blown storefront, with free coffee and a TV and couches for people to lounge on. Carefully stapled bags, “prescription” printed on one side, are pushed out of a little window similar to the kind manned by bank tellers or postal clerks. The child-proof amber prescription bottles are the same kind that Cephalexin or Xanax comes in, but with ink-jet-printed labels reading ISH slapped on them, citing CA Health and Safety Code 11362.5-7. And that’s because this is all, still, legal in the failing great state of California.

Prop 215, also known as the Compassionate Use Act, brought about the legalization of medicinal marijuana in California in 1996, making operations like my friendly neighborhood pot shop, the Long Beach Organics Collective (read the reviews!) possible. What were originally envisioned as collectives made up of the terminally ill or chronic pain sufferers coming together in peaceful, self-supporting agrarian enclaves, growing and sharing their marijuana amongst themselves, has blown up into big business in recent years. San Francisco, with a population of under a million, is home to just twenty-three tightly regulated dispensaries. The city of Los Angeles is home to at least 540 pot shops, a figure that is said to be larger than that of all the Starbucks in the City of Angels. (There are just slightly a bit more than 1700 Starbucks in the whole state.)

In LA, billboards and print ads offering cheap medical marijuana evaluations are a regular sight. Their aesthetic borrows heavily from The Chronic and Doggystyle era rap album art, mixed in with a token bit of medical iconography; cannabis leaves abound. Banished to the back pages of local alt-weeklies, just a page’s turn from the escort ads, the target audience doesn’t seem to be cancer patients, people with glaucoma or those suffering from spinal injuries.

My pot shop is just a few blocks north of downtown Long Beach, a neighborhood that fell on hard times before the Great Recession hit. Then the already empty retail spaces expanded storefront by storefront, leaving many blocks largely vacant. While opening a more traditional business in any of these spaces would require surviving the excruciatingly slow and arcane process known as obtaining a business license, opening a pot shop has been the easier route. They are not the target of federal raids that still can and do target places like the hookah bar down the block which was so shady that a heavy chain and padlock was kept across the doors even during their so-called “business” hours, as they openly sold marijuana inside-all while operating under a business license for selling beauty and hair care products, one of the easiest to obtain. The Obama administration has called the feds off of dispensaries that abide by California law, regardless of the all-trumping federal laws against marijuana.

Now the Long Beach City Council has passed an ordinance in the hope to curtail the ever-expanding number of dispensaries. It sets a buffer zone around schools for one thing; it also mandates that all marijuana sold be grown within the city’s limits.

There are three schools within just a few blocks of my pot shop. The closest, just a half block away, is a pre-school, which seems to indicate the end of the establishment. Community activists have been highly vocal in their support of these proposed laws, citing crime, ugliness and sketchy people. To them, dispensaries are no better than your average casita.

That has not been my experience.

My thoughts on the local pot shop began with a bowl of water. José, the intimidating, tall and wide guy who sits watch over the doctor’s office-like waiting room, set it down outside the front door. “For the dogs,” he said, as I walked past with my own beagle, Sigmund, “so they can have a drink.” My pot shop wanted to be a good neighbor. This was just the first step in what has become a growing neighborhood charm offensive. As it occupies the sole retail space on the block, the LBOC is continually looking to insert itself into the community, hoping to become loved and indispensable to stoners and marijuana teetotalers alike.

A good friend who lives nearby in an apartment she owns, inside of which she often smokes medicinal-grade marijuana picked up from one of those old-fashioned (illegal) drug dealer types. She recalled her response to the LBOC opening by miming taking a drag off a joint then speaking in fits and starts around a fake cough: “Fuck, man. What about my property value?”

And in a sense, yes. One of two things are highly likely to happen if you stand out front of the LBOC for any extended period of time: a patient will offer to sell you the weed he just procured at the dispensary, or someone will ask if you have a club card and if you can buy for them. I often recognize my high school-aged self in the faces of the shotgun-riding passengers sitting in cars parked in the 30-minute spot out front-it’s a green zone! That must have been the face I put on while someone over 21 went into the gas station to buy me beers. I’ve watched teenaged skater kids rip into the stapled-shut bags-police procedural rules bar cops from unsealing stabled prescriptions-more than eager to get at their purchase. Once one pulled out a huge bud right on the street corner, holding it up against the sky to examine the color of its hairs, the pockets of THC crystals.

But then there’s a philosophy student from Cal State University Long Beach, with a grey-flecked ponytail, that I see regularly. He walks incredibly stiffly, uses a cane. To pet my dog, Sigmund jump up and put his paws on the man’s waist; he is unable to bend over. He found himself on suicide watch after making a bad choice during a doctor’s visit; he said that if a proposed treatment wasn’t going to help, he just wanted it to all end.

And there’s a grandmother with a motorized scooter who comes with her pre-teen grandson. She motors past the younger and not-visibly-suffering patients to pick up a quarter of her strain of choice.

Phase two of the charm offensive blew way past the doggie water bowl. One early weekday morning, I saw a flock of blue t-shirts milling around out front, trash bags in hand. The back of each shirt was silkscreened with a white cannabis leaf, with the words CLEAN UP CREW running beneath. The blue-shirted legal stoners made their way through the neighborhood, picking up trash with the help of latex gloves. Others swept up dead leaves and debris-surely including a fair number of hastily torn “Prescription” bags-from the sidewalk.

They clean up every weekend now, with at least a dozen people making up a given Saturday or Sunday’s crew. The volunteers are familiar faces from weekdays at the dispensary-the same twentysomething-heavy crowd, but with quite a few more female volunteers to balance out the bros. And they don’t do some half-assed cleaning job. This is far from being a spotless neighborhood, the grass and sidewalks littered with an array of trash and leftover food-chicken bones and stripped cobs of corn impaled on sticks, sold by street vendors, along with various fast food packaging and wrappers. On weekends now, the sidewalks are spotless, the landscaping free of clinging bits of trash, no dregs of meals half ground into the sidewalk.

There’s definitely a Mafioso feeling to the whole thing-as if the residents in the neighborhood are “being taken care of.” It’s not like we’ve all been gifted iPods that fell of the back of some truck, but with all of the political debate going on, the charm offensive does make it feel like I’m unwittingly giving something back, if only my own attitude, for these cleaner streets, for the dog water and also for the dog bag dispenser they later installed outside. I use the bags-they’re the biodegradable kind, the ones that won’t clog up landfills like the cheap plastic sandwich bags I used to buy for picking up after my dog.

The charm offensive is not entirely working. A stroller-pushing mother unleashed a fierce tirade on a pair of street cleaners the other Sunday. Even as they were picking up trash, she pointed them out to her husband as if they were breaking car windows or stencil-bombing people’s front doors: “Look baby, there’s two of them now,” she said.

Then, yelling across the street, not pausing as she pushed he daughter forward: “Now you’re fucking out here picking shit up off the street?” she yelled.

The Mafioso thing is definitely getting to some more than others.

I became the best of neighbors to the LBOC completely by chance way too early recently when my trusty beagle sidekick and I foiled a robbery attempt. Out for a morning walk, not even half-awake myself, Sigmund and I passed by someone walking up the sidewalk around the corner from the front of the dispensary. I vaguely remember saying hello, which is totally out of character for me, especially when resignedly taking the dog out anytime before 6:00 a.m. This makes me think that Sigmund howled at the man-and his beagle howl is raw and loud, a painful sound to hear. On my way back, I saw the same guy messing with the metal gate covering the LBOC’s glass doors. He was trying to dismantle the cameras, as it turned out. José told me all of this the next day. He said that as they were playing back the security tape, just when the would-be burglar was trying to take the camera down, the footage showed Sigmund and I walking past, and the burglar took off.

Even before the City Council passed the “locally grown” part of its initiative, the LBOC had moved into the empty office space next door. They quickly put up walls, added new doors and may have already started growing a crop right here on my block. The front of the grow operation space has large plate-glass windows looking out on the street. They hope to decorate them with rotating art installations. None of this may matter, in light of the school-zone buffer laws. But they seem to think that if they can make the neighborhood love them enough, all the laws might just go away.

Willy Blackmore lives in Long Beach, where he works for a PR firm and also writes sometimes.

Photograph by Katherine Hitt, under a Creative Commons license.