CITY HALL — They look more like grandmas than the aspiring owners of a medical marijuana dispensary.
But despite their small frame, silver hair and soft-spoken matronly disposition, they aren’t and they are.
Long-time friends Judith Eton, 67 of Brentwood, Harriet Simon, 75 of Encino, and Judy Uhrman, 65 of Encino, came into Santa Monica with dreams of opening an herbal and holistic pharmacy that would have the city’s first medical marijuana dispensary, hoping to give patients from nearby Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center and Saint John’s Health Center a means to acquire cannabis without having to step into Los Angeles.
“It sounded like a good idea,” Eton said. “It turned out to be way harder than you think.”
What they learned recently is the reason why there are no dispensaries in Santa Monica while a proliferation of them has taken place in the city to the east where there’s supposedly more places to buy medical pot than grande soy lattes.
It’s simply just not allowed in Santa Monica.
They received a reminder last week when after waiting through a nearly seven-hour meeting the City Council informed the women that they could not take action on their request for a conditional use permit to open a dispensary because there is nothing on the books regarding the type of business.
Instead several councilmembers said they would like to wait until the Land Use and Circulation Element — a new comprehensive city planning document — is completed some time next year after which medical marijuana dispensaries could be considered when officials review the zoning code for changes.
Santa Monica officials said they also want to wait and see the outcome of the medical cannabis issue in Los Angeles where the City Council there is about to consider a new stringent ordinance that would dramatically cut the number of dispensaries which some estimate to be more than 1,000.
“We need to learn from the city of Los Angeles’ experience which has been disastrous because they didn’t think through the process and have all sorts of craziness going on now,” Councilwoman Gleam Davis said at the meeting on Oct. 27.
The number of dispensaries that popped up in Los Angeles during a two-year moratorium ranges from several hundred to over a thousand, allowed to proliferate despite the halt because of what many describe as poor enforcement and the hardship exemption under which many of the businesses were presumably allowed to open.
“Los Angeles could write a textbook on how not to handle this issue and for god’s sakes, I hope Santa Monica does not copy Los Angeles,” said Bruce Mirken, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington D.C.
Mirken points to the cities that have put together regulations after which Santa Monica city officials could model a local law, including Oakland and San Francisco.
“They set up a fairly detailed set of regulations that include everything from security and disability access to requirements of minimum distances to schools,” he said. “They managed to sort through neighborhood concerns and concerns of patients to come up with a model that seems to work.”
Eton, Simon and Uhrman are motivated by personal experiences, having seen family and friends suffer from cancer and benefit from medical marijuana.
The problem is that many of the dispensaries in Los Angeles are uninviting, secured in some cases by armed guards and metal detectors, Eton said.
“They look very creepy and I think for the people who need it, they wouldn’t go into it,” Eton said.
The women saw Santa Monica as a prime location for their pharmacy, a city that has world-class medical and research facilities but no dispensary.
Knowing little about cannabis, the business partners decided to do their research, learning more about the benefits of medical marijuana and becoming more convinced of its need in Santa Monica. They found an ideal location on Wilshire Boulevard that once housed an old rare coin shop, coming already equipped with bullet proof glass, security cameras and a system of doors in which one doesn’t open until the other closes.
The women said they understand some of the apprehension concerning dispensaries but note they don’t fit the profile of the traditional “pot dealer.” Eton, originally from Boston, was a long-time interior designer before moving on to become a motivational speaker for Weight Watchers. Her husband is a dentist in Beverly Hills and together they raised three children.
Simon worked in the nonprofit sector for 19 years handling financial services . She was born in Ohio but spent most of her schooling years in California where she and her husband, an attorney, raised three children. Neither have any grandchildren.
A former teacher and mother of five children, Uhrman facilitates and participates in caregiver support groups. Her husband, an attorney, suffers from multiple sclerosis.
“I think (Santa Monica officials) don’t want to deal with the bad element,” Eton said. “Their argument is they don’t need one because anyone in Santa Monica can go into Venice where there are loads of them.”
“But they leave the revenue that comes in,” Simon added. “The other part of our business would be holistic and there’s certainly sales tax generated from that.”
State law prohibits marijuana sales for profit.
The women said they plan to wait and see whether dispensaries will be allowed in Santa Monica before considering another city.
Mayor Ken Genser said that if the zoning ordinance is changed to allow dispensaries, he would make sure that the business licenses are not transferable to future owners who might not be as honest in their operations.
He notes as an example a business that would be licensed as a family restaurant but then after changing hands in ownership, would serve alcohol and appeal more to a college crowd.
“Some of the places that I have seen just by having gone to businesses near them look pretty unsavory,” Genser said.
Councilman Bob Holbrook said he is opposed to opening any dispensaries in Santa Monica, believing they aren’t necessary in the city because there are several of them located within feet of the Santa Monica-Los Angeles border.
He said the businesses can be problematic, requiring armed guards and attracting dealers who hang out in front of the store and offer to sell marijuana for even cheaper.
Holbrook, who attended a seminar that discussed issues of medical marijuana dispensaries, said some businesses take in $5 or $6 million in cash from cannabis sales.
“I know people think there is nothing wrong with marijuana use but I am concerned about all of that cash,” Holbrook said. “I do support marijuana use for people who absolutely need it because of medical conditions … but I would like L.A. to figure out a way you can do that without supplying to drug abusers.”