Medical Marijuana Dispensary Ignites Feud Between Property Owner And City Of Long Beach

By Joshua H. Silavent
Staff Writer

November 6th, 2012 – On October 23, the Long Beach City Council referred to a hearing officer the business license revocation appeal of John W. Mitchell, owner of a retail property located at 1742 E. Broadway.

But this rather rudimentary and innocuous council decision belies the contentious nature of the appeal, which follows a series of legal challenges and contradictory accounts of why the business license was revoked in the first place. Moreover, it fails to reveal that the conflict at hand centers on one of many medical marijuana dispensaries city and law enforcement officials say operate illegally in Long Beach.

For some time, the property at 1742 E. Broadway owned by Mitchell has been home to The Brit, a gay-friendly bar. Next door, within the same property address, The Giving Tree Co-op, a medical marijuana dispensary, set up shop at an unknown date. But on March 8, the beginning of the end for the co-op was set in motion.

On that date, the Long Beach City Attorney’s Office served Mitchell and The Giving Tree’s owner/operator, Mark Rosebush, an administrative citation warning notice that the co-op was in violation of city code – for example, no fire and other safety inspections were ever conducted – and operating without an individual business license. It, therefore, was required to cease operations immediately. “Those were all the bases of the revocation,” Deputy City Attorney Kendra Carney told the Business Journal. “It was not just the dispensary.”

No dice, though. Subsequent compliance inspections over the next several months revealed that Rosebush was continuing to sell marijuana at that location.

Legitimately fearing that his own property rental business was in jeopardy, Mitchell and his attorney, Richard Brakefield, initiated an unlawful detainer action against Rosebush in Los Angeles Superior Court in order to have the dispensary evicted. The court initially ruled in Mitchell’s favor, but Rosebush was able to obtain what essentially amounted to a stay on the eviction on August 9 and continued to operate the dispensary. On September 26, according to Brakefield, a judge removed the stay, allowing for the eviction to proceed. (The Giving Tree finally vacated on October 24, according to Brakefield.)

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At this point, everything seemingly should have been resolved. There was just one problem: the city had already revoked Mitchell’s business license, handing down the decision five days prior to the judge removing the stay of eviction.

So why didn’t the city hold off on its decision until the courts ruled, given that Mitchell appeared to be caught in a catch-22?

“I think they did that simply because they wanted to act more precipitously than the court system and legal procedures allow,” Brakefield said. “In other words, Dr. Mitchell is being punished for obeying the law.”

A September 20 report from hearing officer Thomas Ramsey, a lawyer with offices on Ocean Boulevard, stated: “The fact that the Licensee (Mitchell) has probably taken all practical steps to end the possession of Rosebush does not alter the conclusion that the Licensee is acting in violation of those provisions in the Code affecting the license.”

Ramsey, seemingly hand-tied, did indicate his preference that the City of Long Beach and Mitchell come to some sort of reasonable compromise, particularly since the revocation of the business license threatened the future of The Brit, an innocent party caught up in the brewing firestorm. And, indeed, a compromise was discussed. The city attorney’s office proposed to bifurcate the business license, wherein Mitchell would surrender his license for the 1742 E. Broadway property and the city would issue a new license to allow him to continue renting/leasing space to The Brit. However, Mitchell would not be authorized to lease the space once occupied by The Giving Tree until a new business received the proper permitting and licensing for the location. A full revocation would restrict Mitchell from obtaining a new license for one year.

“The city proposed bifurcation and, unfortunately, the property owner was unwilling to . . . we weren’t able to reach an agreement with Mr. Mitchell,” Carney said.

Brakefield, as might be suspected, had a different take, telling the Business Journal that Mitchell would have accepted the deal. However, “They went ahead and sabotaged it simply by revoking the license,” he added. “I believe they want to make some kind of example.”

How so? Brakefield believes that the city has chosen to eliminate medical marijuana dispensaries by targeting property owners. “They are trying to intimidate the landlords,” he added.

No hearing date, as of press time, has been set for Mitchell’s appeal, though Carney said it would likely happen sometime in late November. (Ramsey will not hear the appeal).

Carney said that the bifurcation proposal is still on the table. “It’s something that the city is still, of course, open to and would prefer because The Brit has been there a long time and, just like any other business in the city that’s operating in accordance with the law, we would like to eliminate any potential negative consequences for them, as well,” she said. In the meantime, The Brit’s status is unchanged, Carney added.

But any compromise hinges on the medical marijuana dispensary having permanently vacated. At the request of the Business Journal, Carney had a city inspection officer visit the premises on November 1. She reported that the dispensary was not operating on that date but could not yet verify whether it had permanently disbanded. The onus for a full, proper inspection lies with Mitchell, she added.

Brakefield said he sent an e-mail to both Carney and Long Beach Business Relations Manager Erik Sund informing them that the dispensary had vacated. Carney said she had not heard from Brakefield as of November 1. Brakefield said he was informed by Sund (who did not return repeated calls for comment from the Business Journal) that he needed to arrange an inspection between the management company that oversees the property for Mitchell and the city. Brakefield said he had contacted the management company but did not know when an inspection would take place.

“We did everything they asked us to do,” Brakefield said. “But this is typical of the way they’ve handled this thing. It’s been duplicitous. They’re just not being forthright. Either that or they’re terribly incompetent and one doesn’t know what the other one’s doing.”

“It’s clear that unless there is a satisfactory resolution, this will go into multiple lawsuits,” Brakefield said.