The only thing advertising Novato’s two medical marijuana dispensaries to passers-by is a bright green door. Tucked side-by-side in an industrial building near the old Shamrock plant on Redwood Boulevard, the Green Tiger Collective and the Green Door Wellness Education Center look anything but legitimate.
And that bothers Green Door owner Lawrence Pebbles.
“We don’t want to be looked at as Novato’s dirty little secret,” said the longtime resident, who claimed he started the collective after watching his dying grandmother struggle with nausea from her pain medication. “We’re here to serve suffering people, and state law allows for this.”
But state law is rapidly shifting. In September, Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB1300, which allows city governments to regulate local dispensaries by, among other things, filing civil and criminal complaints against them. And earlier this month, the federal Department of Justice announced a crackdown on commercial marijuana distributors in California and sent cease-and-desist letters to a reported 16 businesses statewide, including Marin Alliance in Fairfax.
Neither of Novato’s dispensaries had received such a letter by press time, according to their lawyers Jeffrey Moss and Scot Candell. And both lawyers claim their clients want to work with the city in its new state-ordained role.
“The Green Tiger wants to work with the city, it wants to pay taxes, it wants to fix up the area surrounding the building, it wants to work with the citizens of Novato,” said Candell.
But between code restrictions and moratoriums, the city hasn’t exactly welcomed the dispensaries with open arms.
“Part of me is like, let’s let sleeping dogs lie; we don’t want to irritate the city,” Pebbles said. “But we also want to be embraced by the community and would invite the city to work with the dispensaries and create an atmosphere where we can operate and provide safe access to our patients instead of being shoved into the background.”
Unfortunately, operating on the edge of lawful society has its cons. Several recent lawsuits involving the Green Door shed some light on the unique challenges facing an industry that some lawmakers have dubbed “the Wild West.”
On Feb. 21, Pebbles was given 30 days’ notice to quit the Green Door’s premises by his landlord, David Cesena, with whom he’d signed a lease in April 2010. The lease termination listed seven alleged offenses, from posting homophobic signs to allowing nonpatients onto the collective’s premises. It also cites a letter the Green Door received indicating the first steps of an abatement action being taken on behalf of the city of Novato.
Elizabeth Dunn with the Novato Department of Housing and Community Development confirmed in an email that cease and desist orders were issued to both dispensaries on behalf of the city, but would not elaborate on their contents or when they were sent out, citing an ongoing code enforcement operation.
Pebbles served Cesena with a temporary restraining order in early April, according to court documents.
According to court transcripts from the hearing that followed on April 15 under Judge Faye D’Opal, Pebbles testified that Cesena had told him at the beginning of their professional relationship that his son, Damien Cesena, was a Hell’s Angel.
“He said that’s his protection, and he offered to protect me by keeping a gun under his desk,” Pebbles said in court. A pattern of bullying that culminated in his eviction notice unfolded with Cesena from that point, according to Pebbles.
For example, in early February, Cesena demanded nearly a 100 percent increase in rent and utilities without recording the hike in writing, Pebbles testified. Then on Feb. 17, the two men’s leasing tussle escalated into outright threats, with Cesena saying he’d take care of Pebbles “in his own way,” according to Pebbles’ statement. On the afternoon of March 29, Damien Cesena approached Pebbles in his dispensary while he was sitting at his desk and leaned over him, Pebbles testified.
“[V]erbatim, he said, what’s it going to take to get you out of here? And I said, ‘A court order.’ And he says, ‘I don’t need a court order. Now this is
personal,’ ” the dispensary owner testified.
“I was frightened then and I’m frightened on and off during the day,” he said in court. “When I think about it, I get anxiety. And I feel like there’s something looming out there that’s going to get me.”
Speaking for himself and his client, Cesena’s lawyer Daniel Bornstein declined to comment for this article, citing the ongoing litigation.
However, in the court transcripts Cesena denies threatening Pebbles or bringing his son into the leasing disagreements.
According to his testimony and the eviction documents, Cesena wanted Green Door out when he received the letter from the city of Novato.
“I got a letter from the city. And I told him he couldn’t do business here, and he told me, ‘I’m going to stay open and fight the city.’ And I go, ‘I don’t want the responsibility and I don’t want you to do
that,’ ” the transcript says.
The court issued a nine-month protective order for Pebbles, citing credible threat and emotional distress, though it declined to issue a full three-year order.
Green Tiger’s alleged involvement
In a court document filed on Oct. 4, Pebbles outlines a theory about his competitor Green Tiger, which shares an entranceway with Green Door.
In early 2011, he writes, he was offered $20,000 to close his dispensary and not open another by Green Tiger’s lawyer Scot Candell.
A series of other events — including cryptic comments from Green Tiger staffers and Cesena himself — convinced Pebbles, as he wrote in the document: “The Green Tiger and David Cesena were actively working together.”
However, on Oct. 5, Judge Roy Chernus ruled only partly in the Green Door’s favor, allowing only some of Green Tiger’s electrical documents to be made subject to review.
“Defendants have not shown that their discovery request for deposition and documents from the non-party Green Tiger to support their ‘conspiracy’ theory is material to any valid defense in this case,” the ruling states.
The Green Tiger declined to comment for this story.
However Candell affirmed, “We agree with the judge.”
In July 2008, the City Council signed an ordinance to the municipal code “establishing that no land use shall be permitted which would violate state or federal laws.”
Since selling medical marijuana is illegal federally, the ordinance essentially prohibited dispensaries from operating in the city limits. However, it doesn’t state that any action can be taken — it simply says that any property violating the ordinance “is hereby declared to be a public nuisance.”
In December 2010, the city established a moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries — and then renewed it in 2011. Both the Green Door and the Green Tiger were established prior to the moratorium.
With the city’s involvement in ongoing code enforcement operations with the two dispensaries, Dunn declined to comment on the city’s official position regarding the dispensaries. However, a letter from city staff from the December meeting when the moratorium was passed calls the selling of medical marijuana a traditionally “prohibited activity” and states, “prospective operators of medical marijuana dispensaries within the city have taken the position that such dispensaries are not unlike pharmacies, medical offices, or general retail uses and are therefore permitted in any zoning district that allows these types of land uses. Staff disagrees with these arguments.”
Dunn estimated that the issue of AB1300’s potential effects on the two dispensaries would be going before council in the near future. “Given the fact that some things are changing at the state and national levels, we may be extending the moratorium to better understand how to address this issue,” she said.
Which is nothing new, according to Moss.
“[Dispensaries] became legal and the cities and counties are still trying to catch up with developments and regulations and moratoriums,” he said. “There are some growing pains as they try to catch up.”
He added: “There’s a perceived connection between marijuana and illegal activity, even though the passage of Prop. 215 gives it a legal direction. This stigma keeps following it, so it’s going to take some time before a real, developed outlook is arrived at.”
And in the meantime, the Green Door will keep serving patients in its unique way, which according to Pebbles means educating its clientele.
“We help a lot of first-timers to medical cannabis who don’t know what they need,” he said. “We have a complete cross section of society with a variety of backgrounds, and the longer I’m there the wider it gets. But it’s mostly just average, mainstream folks.”