Doors Close on the Collective

Less than two years after opening the Soto St. Collective closed without notifying customers.

It was inconspicuous at first; family insurance company to the right, bakery to the left. Tucked behind El Pollo Loco restaurant, the only noticeable quality were the higher-than-average bars on the windows and doors—prepared for closing at four o’clock in the afternoon. When customers got closer, they soon realize the extra security measures are not just physical barriers, but hired guards flanking the doors to enter.

It was the Soto Street Collective: a medical marijuana dispensary in the heart of East Los Angeles. Opened in 2013, the dispensary is home to over twenty-five different varieties of marijuana and cannabis products for sale to customers who own medical marijuana licenses. All transactions must be paid for in cash and the collective’s phone number changes bimonthly. The only trail of its existence is third-party websites listing the businesses’ address and sometimes fully operating telephone number.

“We aren’t here to cause trouble, but it come naturally in this area because we do deal with so much cash, it’s easy to become a target,” said Brian Ruden, an employee at Soto St. Collective, “People come in looking for something and have customers just like anybody else would…it’s not what we are selling but how people think we are selling it.”

Now, the former dispensary is no longer. As of the first week of December the dispensary shop closed the doors, removed the subtle signs, and is no longer listed on a website known as, “WeedMaps”, that details local cannabis businesses in the greater Los Angeles area.

Legally, shops like the collective must abide by the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, which approves the use of marijuana, or cannabis, for medical purposes. The California Department of Public Health requires medical patients and providers may buy and sell products with a medical marijuana license or card, known as a MMIC.

During an interview last year, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti commented on the growing number of cannabis dispensaries in the city, comparing future legal limits for marijuana to alcohol.

"I've never seen much of a difference between marijuana and alcohol... alcohol has rules around it," Garcetti said. "If we had something similar with marijuana it would probably be a good revenue generator."

That revenue generator Garcetti is referring to is clearly felt at the Soto St. Collective. Once open seven days a week from noon to nine o’clock at night, in an average year, the collective can make upwards of $500,000. This falls just short of the national average in comparison to other dispensary business in states like Colorado and Washington that are looking to make $1 million or more each year.

“I can’t say what other stores are doing or how much they’re making, but we do what we can. We’re larger than some of the others in the area, and we have options that range a wider group of patients and customers,” said Alfonso Ceto, closing manager of the collective, "We aren't struggling."

Focus Featurette Voices of Soto

Sitting on the corner of Soto and First Street is a news stand. It opened over fifty years ago and sits in the middle of a family-owned business center in East Los Angeles.

Employees and manager of the Soto. St. Collective was unreachable for further comments on the statements made in October. Telephone numbers listed online are disconnected completely from former listings.

In the last two years, Los Angeles has seen a forty-five percent increase of dispensaries, like Soto St. Collective, but even still, statewide it is difficult to calculate if this growth will continue upwards. Although California’s population is seven times the size of Colorado, there is nine times fewer medical marijuana users documented. The state holds only 9,637 valid cardholders, according to the California Department of Public Health.

The Los Angeles Police Department’s closest station to Soto St. is the Hollenbeck Community Police Station, only three blocks away. At the time of this article they were unavailable for comment. Hollenbeck Captain Gerado Lopez directed all inquiries on cannabis use and sales to before released statements and records.

However, there have been no official releases on buying, selling and managing a dispensary; only those about check points for drivers under the influence of alcohol and marijuana—beyond the legal limit.

“There’s a growing recognition that driving under the influence of drugs is something we need to be clamping down on more effectively,” said city Attorney Mike Feuer at a press conference in November of last year. The biggest concern and activity towards medical marijuana is keeping strains within the legal limit, ensuring clients are not driving under the influence.

“Yeah, there’s a lot of controversy around places like this. There are misconceptions about what we do here and why we do it… but that doesn’t change the way people here think of us,” said Ruden.

He is more focused on being a neighborhood business, where his customers know him and he knows his customers.

“What makes us different from any other business here?”

Across the local industry, an employee (who has chosen to remain anonymous) of The League a dispensary located on Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles said, “This is how it works. If you stay somewhere too long and you’re not doing it right you’re testing them [law enforcement].”

A photo taken in October 2014 of the Soto St. Collective. The store closed in December 2014.