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Cynthia Rosenfeld, shown lighting up in her Laguna Woods apartment, relies on medical cannabis for pain relief to avoid the side effects of opioids. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC
Laguna Woods residents are arguing cannabis isn’t just for the younger generation. Orange County’s city with the highest percentage of senior citizens is the latest in the county to discuss bringing local cannabis shops for residents to access medicinal and recreational marijuana. The council is holding a public hearing at their upcoming July 19 meeting to get more input from residents and city staff about certain regulations for these businesses. At that meeting, staff will bring a proposed ordinance for council consideration to potentially move forward. Like This Free Civic News? Support Voice of OC Today.At a meeting on June 21, council members had a preliminary discussion about what weed shops could look like in the city. Most residents commenting publicly that night were in support of allowing cannabis storefronts. In November 2022, Laguna Woods residents passed Measure T with 61.03% of the vote. This measure approved a tax rate on cannabis businesses. The council later voted to set this tax rate at 10%, the maximum amount allowed under state law. Laguna Woods is made up mostly of seniors, with 80% of the city’s residents aged 65 and older. The Laguna Woods Village, which makes up around 90% of the city, is a 55 and older independent community with more than 15,000 residents. “Our residents report a better quality of life using cannabis,” Councilmember Shari Horne said at the June 21 meeting. “It’s another tool in the toolbox that benefits seniors.” Most public speakers at Laguna Woods’ council meeting supported allowing cannabis shops in the city for medicinal purposes. “The need for medical marijuana in the village is tremendous… I have spinal stenosis, and the change was immediate,” resident Maureen Mehler said at the meeting. Mehler said she was part of a study conducted by the University of California, Irvine on the effects of medical marijuana. She commented that she has to make an hour-long round trip to Santa Ana to access their cannabis shops. “At this stage of my life, I can still make the drive on the freeway,” Mehler said. “I’m not sure in a couple of years if I would be capable of making that drive.” Mary Sheets, a Laguna Woods Village resident, described her experience using cannabis after her husband had a heart attack and died in the middle of the night. She said she used marijuana to help her sleep while she was grieving. “I finally was able to get a good night’s sleep, the first night in two months,” Sheets said at the meeting. “I’m here to ask the city council to pass the cannabis dispensary ordinance so that when people like me — who may have never used marijuana before but find at some time in their life that they may need it — that it may be available to them.” Another speaker, a cancer survivor, said cannabis was the only thing that kept the nausea away during chemo. If approved, the city would join Santa Ana, Stanton and Costa Mesa — other cities that currently allow weed shops in the city. The biggest push in most cities for allowing cannabis storefronts is the tax revenue. Taxes from cannabis businesses can bring in millions every year that can be used for local programs and improvements. But in Laguna Woods, most attention is focused on the medicinal benefits for the aging population. Other cities like Buena Park and Huntington Beach have considered bringing these businesses to the city but haven’t taken the final step. In Mission Viejo, the council quickly shot down a similar proposal last year. If approved, the shops would need to be 600 feet from any drug rehab facilities, daycare centers, libraries and schools. Staff identified six locations in the city that could house a cannabis storefront while following these guidelines. The council will hold the public hearing for cannabis business regulations at their meeting July 19. Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.