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Group hopes to bring cannabis dispensary to Laguna Woods

A plan is in the works to open a marijuana dispensary in the city of Laguna Woods.

A location has been chosen, with an option on a building just steps from a Village gate. A development agreement has been worked out that would guarantee the city an annual income and bring other benefits to the community, advocates say. Even a name for the dispensary has been proposed.

Now the City Council has to approve the plan.

A panel of cannabis lawyers and advocates held a forum on the plan in Laguna Woods Village on Aug. 26 to introduce the concept of a marijuana dispensary in the city and to find out what Village residents would want in a local retail location. Around 50 residents attended the meeting.

One of the partners in the project is Aaron Herzberg, a former divorce lawyer turned cannabis attorney who founded the Bud & Bloom medical marijuana dispensary in Santa Ana in 2016. (He has since sold it.)

“The goal is to make the Laguna Woods dispensary senior focused,” Herzberg said, “and focused in particular on the needs of Laguna Woods seniors.”

Herzberg has personal experience with marijuana and seniors, he said: His mother found relief from shingles pain after he talked her into trying a cannabis tincture.

The Laguna Woods dispensary would have a big focus on medical marijuana products alongside recreational pot, Herzberg said.

In the effort to make it senior focused, the dispensary would have a designated entry for seniors, especially those with chronic health conditions; entry ramps along with wide aisles inside to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers; seating for customers waiting in line; a pager system to alert waiting customers; sound absorbent materials for a hearing aid friendly environment; and designated employees who would consult one on one with seniors.

The dispensary also would hire Village residents – a point of much interest to those at the meeting. The planned minimum pay would be $24 an hour.

Village resident Lonnie Painter would be a senior-specific consultant at the dispensary. Painter started a cannabis collective in the Village in 2009 and for 10 years held cannabis-information workshops, offered one-on-one advice and sold marijuana products to around 1,000 residents who joined his collective.

But when Proposition 64 legalized recreational marijuana in California and imposed new licensing requirements beginning in 2019, he was forced to shut down his collective. He has since restarted the Village Cannabis Club.

Painter is enthusiastic about the proposed Laguna Woods dispensary.

“I have not been excited about any project in a long time, but this project I believe in,” he said at the meeting. “The question is why do we have to go all the way to Santa Ana” to get cannabis.

The proposed dispensary certainly would be close to the Village. The building that is under option is just outside Gate 3 – the medical building at 24902 Moulton Parkway, next to McCormick & Son Mortuaries.

Residents at the forum said they were concerned about the “sleaze factor” a dispensary might bring and possibly unsavory characters hanging around. A big concern was also the possibility of an increase in crime in the area.

Panel members assured the residents of their commitment to being “good stewards of the neighborhood.” The dispensary would be “upscale,” they said, with loitering not allowed. To deter crime, they said, it would have security guards, cameras and ample lighting.

Chad Wanke is another partner on the dispensary project. Wanke owns a government relations firm and has spent years on the Placentia City Council, with two terms as mayor. He also is a “municipal cannabis policy expert,” he said, acting as liaison between dispensary project teams and cities.

Wanke comes from a Southern Baptist family, he said, but they’re now “cannabis believers.” For him, too, the topic of cannabis and seniors is personal. Before his dad died of colon cancer in 2015, Wanke was able to persuade him to try a medical marijuana product.

“It relieved the symptoms from chemo, radiation and surgery,” Wanke said. “It certainly improved his quality of life.”

Marijuana also helped ease the pain his mother suffered after knee replacement surgery, he said. She used a topical product and a tincture.

Wanke said his goal is to help people get off opioids and other potentially dangerous medications and have them try marijuana instead.

“God made cannabis the way it is – it’s a plant and it helps people,” he said.

But it’s not easy to convince people of that. In fact, he said, he’s been called “the devil” for his views on cannabis.

“‘Reefer Madness’ is alive and well in America,” Wanke said, referring to the 1936 film that was intended as an educational movie against marijuana use.

It’s also not proving easy to persuade some members of the Laguna Woods City Council to approve a dispensary in the city, Wanke said.

The team has worked out a development agreement with guaranteed annual revenue to the city of a minimum of $400,000, up to $1.75 million, depending on the dispensary’s sales revenue.

Both Laguna Woods Mayor Carol Moore and Councilman Ed Tao have taken a wait-and-see approach to a dispensary. In separate emails, they pointed to a city measure that has been placed on the November ballot. Measure T is a cannabis business tax measure that, if approved by voters, would impose a tax on cannabis sales.

Regarding a marijuana dispensary in Laguna Woods, Tao said, “It’s a good idea if we can go through the process after clear voters’ input and our own research.”

He added that it was “likely” the city will approve a dispensary. “We shall find out,” Tao said.

Moore had concerns over the taxation of legal marijuana.

“My concerns relate to the high taxes that are placed on cannabis which make it difficult for legal cannabis operators to stay in business,” she said. “Illegal cannabis is flourishing due to their lower cost. …

“The continual squeeze for extra money has particularly hurt the smaller operators.”

Councilwoman Shari Horne enthusiastically supports the idea of a cannabis dispensary in Laguna Woods.

“I am an unabashed advocate for seniors’ access to cannabis,” she said in an email. She, too, believes that cannabis “can significantly reduce the use of opioids and the unpleasant side effects.”

Horne recalled the regular bus service that once took Village residents to a dispensary in Santa Ana. She would take that bus and speak to those on board about marijuana.

“They get benefits for their pain, or lack of appetite, inability to sleep or just to relax,” she said. “I believe seniors deserve every tool in the toolbox to have their best quality of life.”

Horne has personal experience with the benefits of cannabis: “It helps my husband sleep and it helps me unwind at the end of the day. It helps my appetite too.”

Having a dispensary in Laguna Woods would eliminate the drive to Santa Ana, Horne said.

And, “while delivery is an option, being able to smell the product is really important,” she said. “You can also talk to knowledgeable people and see various new products, like patches and tinctures.”

In addition, she said, “I personally would welcome the new income to supplement senior services for our community.”

The next step to getting a cannabis dispensary in Laguna Woods lies in the hands – and voices – of Village residents, said Wanke, the cannabis policy expert on the panel.

“The City Council needs to hear from the public and the voters that you want a dispensary in Laguna Woods,” he said.

He urged residents to call, text or email council members, and above all to show up at City Council meetings.

“When people are willing to take the time to go to a City Council meeting, that sends a strong message,” Wanke said.

Horne said she already has heard from residents who were at the forum.

“Emails are being received by all of us from people who saw that presentation,” she said. “I will say they have all been supportive except one.

“This topic brings lots of people to our Council Chambers,” she added. “Sometimes their arguments can sway a council person on the fence.”

More meetings on the proposed dispensary are planned.

The Village Cannabis Club will meet Tuesday, Sept. 13, at 3 p.m. at Clubhouse 2. Among the topics to be discussed is Measure T, the cannabis tax measure. Horne said she will speak about the measure at the meeting.

So about the name of the dispensary. The plan was to call it The Fireplace, according to the panel members, denoting a “warm and inviting environment.”

That name isn’t exactly appropriate for wildfire-prone California, a resident at the forum pointed out.

It has since been changed to Creekside.

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