In a way, medical marijuana dispensary owner Matthew Cohen is just another small businessman.
For the past five years, he has been working diligently to grow his shop, The Natural Way of L.A., located on Pico just east of Fairfax. Cohen claims to carry the best-quality product in the world, which he says is very important to his clients, many of whom are fellow Jews with discerning taste.
“Jews know good pot,” Cohen said.
Cohen’s shop is one of nine dispensaries active within a mile and a half of the intersection of Pico and Robertson as of press time this week. Like all dispensaries, Natural Way is a nonprofit, and in that highly competitive market, it hasn’t made money yet. Cohen, 43, says that he will “lose less than ever” in 2010, partly thanks to a new ordinance that put some of his competitors out of business.
Cohen relies on quality to distinguish his shop, but he has tried to cater to his fellow Jews, too. He used to carry kosher marijuana-impregnated “edibles,” and although he says he has “many obviously Jewish patients,” he hasn’t carried that product line in awhile. “It did nothing for us,” Cohen said — although the kosher-for-Passover chocolate-covered matzah made with weed was a hit (no pun intended), as were the marijuana macaroons. “They were labeled pareve,” Cohen said. “I’m not sure which rabbi was in charge of that.”
But he insists quality product is of the foremost importance. “The Dutch have been playing catch-up for the past five or six years,” Cohen says with considerable salesmanship bravado, and thanks to his years of growing experience, Cohen’s pot sells out before the next batch is ready to harvest. He believes that he has helped make Los Angeles into the new Amsterdam: “For 10 days every month, we have the finest pot in L.A.,” Cohen said of the product he grows, “which means we have the finest pot in California, the finest pot in the United States, and I can promise you, the finest pot in the world.”
Cohen is a fast-talker, an engaging storyteller and a user of his own medicine — taking marijuana to treat the chronic pain he has suffered from since 2001. Before opening Natural Way of L.A. in 2005, he held a few different jobs, including running a network of veterinary hospitals, working as a radio sportscaster and as Major League Soccer’s first vice president of sales. He later headed the sales staff for the LA Galaxy soccer team.
Wearing mesh shorts and black high-top Nikes when this reporter came to meet with him, Cohen clearly has left the executive suite behind, although his sales patter is still polished and convincing, especially when he talks about the people who grow his pot. Cohen estimates that he’s set up grow rooms for 120 to 130 people in the past two years.
“You can get your first harvest from that room in 90 days,” Cohen said. “We set you up with the Cadillac of systems — lights, an airflow system, the works — and it will grow diamond-quality pot.” Cohen charges $5,500 to set up a 144-square-foot grow room, which can produce three or four harvests of 4 pounds each. Cohen buys back quality bud for $3,000 a pound. Even though grossing $36,000 a year out of a spare bedroom sounds great, Cohen takes care to explain that growing pot is hard — but rewarding — work. “You’re gonna feel really good,” Cohen said, “like a real farmer — even though you’re sitting in Century City.”
Cohen estimates that 45 percent of what he sells is grown locally, either in people’s homes or on site at the dispensary, and he’d like to raise that figure to 80 to 90 percent, especially in light of the Los Angeles City Council ordinance that went into effect June 7. That ordinance, which forced three-quarters of the city’s marijuana dispensaries to close, also outlined regulations for the remaining dispensaries, including a requirement that they grow their product on site. “Every real dispensary should be adding lights as fast as they can,” Cohen said, referring to the high-powered lights used in indoor grow rooms, “because the ordinance makes clear for the very first time that we have to grow 100 percent of our medicine.”
What Cohen calls a “real dispensary” — one that grows its own marijuana — has been the exception rather than the rule. He estimates there are between 50 and 80 “real quality dispensaries” in the city growing their own pot. The rest — at one point, there were as many as 600 across the city, by some estimates — don’t grow any of their own stuff. “None of the Russian-owned dispensaries, the Armenian-owned, the Israeli-owned — they don’t grow any of their own pot,” Cohen said. “They’re buying their pot from vendors.”
The ordinance dictated that every dispensary that opened in Los Angeles after November 2007 — some 437 shops — had to close, and by now many already have shut their doors. At one point, 15 dispensaries were located in the Pico-Robertson area. Six appear to have closed, most of them in the past four months, since the ordinance went into effect. Of the nine that remain, only Natural Way of L.A. has been declared eligible to stay open. Many dispensaries are contesting the ordinance in court.
Cohen chalks up his continued legal status to having good lawyers who could comply with the “dirty little tricks in the ordinance,” and to the fact that Natural Way is, with 3,000 active patients, smaller than many other shops. Cohen stayed small because he has never sold to what he calls “the fastest-growing group of patients,” namely, 18- to 21-year-olds.
One reason Cohen doesn’t sell to patients under 21? “I’m a dad,” he said. (His daughter is 8.)
The City Council ordinance is, in practical terms, far more important for the future of marijuana in Los Angeles than the much more widely discussed Proposition 19, the ballot measure that would legalize marijuana for recreational use. Nevertheless, Cohen, who’s a bit of a pot policy wonk, has a lot to say about the proposition.
“I am going to be happy and disappointed whichever way it goes,” Cohen said. “And what I mean is, if it’s voted in — and right now it’s polling ahead, I’m very surprised — if it passes, there is the huge, huge bounce that the entire marijuana issue gets. Legalization, medicalization, everything about marijuana would get shoved right to the forefront, nationwide.”
Cohen plans to vote against the measure because he believes access to medical marijuana will be restricted rather than improved as a result of Proposition 19. “The right thing for marijuana users, both medical and nonmedical,” Cohen said, “is for this to not pass.”
But, Cohen added, “The right thing to push forward marijuana legal reform is for this to pass, because it’s going to push forward the cause across the country.”