California’s Canna Clubs

He admits his idea of two eras was always self-delusional. Even before the Supreme Court ruled against medical cannabis patient Angel Raich in early June, reaffirming the federal government’s right to enforce marijuana prohibition despite state laws legalizing medical marijuana, Joshua knew deep down that running a medical marijuana distribution business was illegal.

It had been illegal for decades, but the Supreme Court put an exclamation point on its illegality in a May 2001, ruling against the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative. The Court unanimously agreed: “There is no medical necessity exemption to the Controlled Substance Act’s prohibitions on manufacture and distribution of marijuana.”

Joshua and dozens of other medical cannabis entrepreneurs saw a way around this in December 2003, when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Raich, issuing an injunction preventing the DEA from enforcing federal marijuana laws in states where medical herb had been legalized. A companion ruling favored Valerie Corral’s California medical cannabis gardening cooperative, further emboldening the medical cannabis industry.

The federal government appealed those pro-pot rulings, sending medical marijuana back to the Supreme Court; but from December 2003 until June 2005 ? when the Court slammed the door on state legalization taking precedence over federal prohibition ? medical marijuana entrepreneurs and cultivators in states with medpot laws operated almost as if they had a legal right to grow and distribute cannabis.

Faced with de facto legalization of dispensaries, California counties and cities hopped on the bud bandwagon, passing ordinances, zoning laws, and business regulations that legitimized cannabis dispensaries.

San Francisco embraced pot clubs most of all, issuing official medical marijuana identification cards and allowing dozens of dispensaries to open without any licensing or regulation scheme in place.

Earlier this year, however, the city stowed away its medical marijuana club welcome mat after police, citizens, and politicians expressed concern about the ever-increasing number of dispensaries and their allegedly negative effect. San Francisco approved a ban on new medpot dispensaries after officials figured 43 unregulated operations were in the city.

In July, California health department officials suspended a program that provided patients state-issued medpot identification cards. The health department started its cannabis ID card program in May 2005, nine years after voters approved Prop. 215. The half million-dollar ID program was operating in three counties and was supposed to be implemented statewide by August. Instead, the state suspended the program after issuing 123 cards.

“It was a nice dream while it lasted,” he said.


Joshua and “silent partners” had rented a small storefront in a run-down section of their California town under false pretenses in February 2004. Several of Joshua’s partners were patients or “caregivers” who legally grow and possess marijuana pursuant to California’s Proposition 215.

First thing they did was change the locks on the front and back doors, retrofi tting them with steel-reinforced deadbolts and security plating. They bought a heavy duty safe and bolted it to the floor in a back room.

They installed scrubber exhaust fans, put dark tinting on the one small front window. They bought second-hand tables and chairs, a refrigerator, a music system, a stack of plastic bins. But what to put in those bins? Several partners had “sea of green” clone-to-bud gardens that produced different strains of marijuana, all of them Indicas, none of them organic.

Joshua had a “big fight” with a grower-partner who sprayed pesticide on clones during flowering to kill spider mites. Joshua told the grower he’d “ruined the medicine”, and refused to buy it. “This ain’t no fucking ?medicine,’ it’s dope,” the grower retorted.

Joshua thought for one or two seconds before he replied: “You’re the dope. Get out of my club.”

Dope vs. Hope

“Legal” marijuana in a prohibitionist country? An open invitation for profiteers? A set-up for internecine arguments between recreational users and medical pot people, between “legitimate” clubs and “rogue” clubs? A lot of cities wish they could tell the difference.

San Francisco Police Captain Rick Bruce says his city might as well be Amsterdam. Medical marijuana dispensaries are a cover for illegal drug gangs, he claims, while acknowledging that some people are bona fi de patients who benefit from pot and pot dispensaries.

The DEA agreed with Bruce, invading California soon after Raich lost, busting a group of Asians allegedly running several cannabis clubs and megawatt grow rooms in San Fran and Oakland. Those busted say they were helping patients, and will defend themselves vigorously in court.

Nearly 9,000 people have official San Francisco medical pot cards. Approximately 2,200 of them are “caregivers” rather than patients, authorized under Proposition 215 to buy and grow pot, as long as they provide housing and financial support for a patient. San Francisco allows each patient to designate as many as three caregivers.

Police Captain Bruce says the city’s medical cannabis cards are a scam. “Because it’s so easy to get a medical marijuana card, all the thugs that are members of gangs picked up medical marijuana cards and can possess a half-pound of marijuana,” he said. “What they do with a half-pound is they break it up and go out on the street and sell it.”

Police say doctors sell cannabis recommendations without regard for medical evidence. They often criticize Dr. Stephen Ellis, who runs the website. Ellis reportedly charges $250 cash for a recommendation. His website criticizes other so-called “pot doctors.” Ellis has competition from Kaiser Permanente HMO and Blue Cross; both organizations allow their doctors to give medpot recommendations.

“It’s a huge scam,” says Bruce. “We see guys coming out of these dispensaries and the only description I can come up with is that it looks like a Cheech and Chong movie. They’re what you would call your traditional potheads. Whether they have a medical condition beyond that is subject to debate.”

Two hundred miles from San Fran, in California’s Central Valley, the city council of Roseville didn’t debate for long: just days after the Raich ruling, it voted 5-0 to repeal an existing ordinance that allowed marijuana dispensaries.

City Attorney Mark Doane studied the Supreme Court’s rejection of Raich before telling the council it had legal justifi cation to repeal the ordinance. Doane argued the Supreme Court decided “anyone who possesses marijuana in California, for whatever reasons, is still subject to prosecution by federal authorities.”

Roseville’s first dispensary opened in 2004, but was promptly shut down after an undercover DEA agent fraudulently convinced Capitol Compassionate Care to sell him pot. The feds raided the home of Richard Marino, the club’s owner. Roseville Mayor Rocky Rockholm says he’s glad to be rid of medpot clubs. If pot is to be distributed, it should be done by a pharmacist, he said.

The San Gabriel Valley city of Hacienda Heights, and Los Angeles County, took similar action two days after Raich lost, serving a closure order on the city’s first medical cannabis club, the California Medical Caregivers Association.

The county ordered the Association to shut down, claiming it violated an ordinance banning marijuana dispensaries in unincorporated areas, and asserting the dispensary was too close to schools, a library and two parks. Several days after the closure order was served, however, a Superior Court judge overturned the order; the club’s lawyer said the club would re-open to provide marijuana to patients again.

In Northern California, the owner of a dispensary that opened in 2004 said the Supreme Court would not prevent him from assisting patients. Les Crane said he was changing the name of his Mendo Remedies cannabis cooperative to “Mendo Spiritual Remedies” and that his dispensary’s medical mission would be bolstered by Crane’s belief that the Bible authorizes humans to utilize “God’s healing herbs.”

Crane’s dispensary was providing cannabis to about 600 patients before the Raich ruling, but has recently been handling many patients from nearby Ukiah; the Raich ruling and DEA threats scared Ukiah’s two biggest clubs out of business.

Scott Feil, a spokesperson for Ukiah’s United Medical Caregiver Clinic, said his club had no choice but to disappoint its many patients by closing to avoid a DEA raid. A Los Angeles affiliate of Feil’s club closed the day after the Raich ruling. Another club, Compassionate Caregivers of Ukiah, shut its doors soon thereafter.

“The main decision to close was made because I have no defense,” Feil said. “The defense was taken away. California voters’ rights were taken away.”

Crane chose to stay in the business, and is asserting Prop. 215 and religious beliefs as justification for distributing cannabis.

“I can’t be scared,” he said. “I just have to keep trudging on. I don’t believe the government has any right to take away what God has given us. I will go to court and we will try to get an injunction against federal agents. We will go to the Supreme Court and we hope that the Supreme Court will uphold our right to have religion and interpret the Bible the way we are interpreting it. It says in the Bible that they are using cannabis. It is the tree of life that will heal all of the nations. It is the only plant out there that could cure the entire world.”

Sickened Dying

Even before the Raich ruling, medpot clubs had become too popular for their own good. Critics statewide claimed Cali dispensaries were little more than Dutch-style cannabis shops disrupting neighborhoods and endangering children. They alleged that greedy doctors wrote marijuana recommendations without medical justification, and that cannabis dispensaries make millions of untaxed dollars charging street prices for marijuana.

Marijuana advocates argue that dispensaries provide a public health service mandated by Prop. 215 in a safe, effective manner that causes far fewer problems than pharmacies and bars.

Ukiah banned new cannabis clubs in May, and is debating pot plant rules including plant height restrictions, and requirements that growers install security infrastructure if they grow more than a few plants. The city’s planning commission recommended forming a five-member citizens’ advisory board to help mediate neighborhood conflicts caused by medical marijuana growing.

Ukiah’s approach leaves some loopholes for patients, and is therefore lenient compared to the increasing number of California cities banning or limiting dispensaries and medical grows.

According to Oakland-based medpot advocacy group Americans for Safe Access (ASA), at least 47 California cities and counties have imposed strict permanent or temporary moratoriums on new dispensaries, while others have banned dispensaries completely.

A spokesperson for California Attorney General Bill Lockyer said medical pot is legal under state law, but that there was nothing the state could do to protect dispensaries or growers from feds.

The DEA said it would not invade medpot states to arrest sick and dying patients, but would bust growers and dispensaries.

“There is definitely a trend toward adopting temporary bans,” said ASA’s Khris Hermes. “We are not afraid to say it’s punitive and hurts patients, taking away their access to medicine.”

“It certainly makes it diffi cult on the patients,” said Dale Gieringer, director of California’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “Many of those people are driving three to four hours from other parts of the state to get to cannabis clubs.”

Joshua said one of his patients posed the following question: “If a sick and dying patient can’t grow their own pot, and the DEA busts people who are growing it and selling it to patients, and patients can’t get medicine and they die, isn’t that an attack on sick and dying patients?”

Not McDonalds

Joshua’s dispensary opened after a month of preparation, and customers arrived because they’d heard about it from friends.

The club’s protocols required an authentic, verified medical marijuana recommendation. Patients signed an agreement that they would not resell cannabis purchased at the club and that they were not undercover police agents.

It was impossible to enforce these protocols. Joshua couldn’t get doctors to talk to him about the authenticity of patient recommendations. He couldn’t get all his customers to refrain from re-selling the club’s cannabis on the street. A local middle school student accurately told her parents she’d bought an ounce of pot around the corner from Joshua’s club, from one of Joshua’s patients. The girl’s father threatened to “beat the shit out of” Joshua.

Joshua worked 20-hour days, sometimes sleeping at the club because he was too tired to go home, and because someone tried to break into the dispensary seven weeks after it opened. His biggest worry was finding quality marijuana. He could sell as much as he procured; supply never satisfied demand.

“I could sell two or three pounds a day,” he said. “I stopped selling ounces and halfers, and went to quarters and eighths. Still, I ran out of medicine.”

The emotional cost of dealing with patients, suppliers, and the police made Joshua feel he’d made a mistake getting into the medpot business.

“I wasn’t prepared for dealing with dying people,” he admitted. “I thought it would be like running a coffeeshop. It wasn’t. I met people I couldn’t smoke a joint with, because they had communicable fatal diseases. I met people who couldn’t afford to pay for the medicine. My suppliers charged regular wholesale rate. If they knew I was low on supply, they raised their prices. With my overhead, I was losing money and unable to give decent prices to the poorest patients.”

The dispensary’s partners fought amongst themselves. There were threats of violence and betrayal. The club grew in popularity and added edible cannabis and tinctures to its menu. A batch of cannabis infected with mold or fungi was alleged to have contributed to the respiratory failure and subsequent death of an HIV patient.

Then, the police chief walked in to the shop and asked Joshua to step outside for “a friendly chat.”

“He said he couldn’t stand to be in there with the smoke,” Joshua recalls. “He said he knew who my growers were. He thought I was an ?ok guy.’ Not my growers though. He said I was in too deep. He would wait for the Raich ruling, but the feds had contacted him already. His advice was to close.”

What’s Next?

The Raich ruling produced immediate ripples in the medpot scene, despite Attorney General Lockyer’s calming statement that nothing would change.

DEA and other federal government spokespersons offered veiled threats disguised as reasonable assurances. DEA mouthpiece Rogene Waite said: “We don’t go after the sick and dying. We go after large-scale organizations, traffickers and distributors. But people should not be breaking the law.” San Francisco U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan refused to confirm or deny if June’s federal raids of San Fran medpot clubs, which he called “Operation Urban Harvest,” was the beginning of a larger attack on other California marijuana dispensaries.

Javier Pena, the DEA’s special agent in charge of the San Francisco offi ce, claimed “We’re empathetic to the sick, but we can’t disregard federal law. The Supreme Court reiterates that we have the power to enforce the federal drug laws, even if they are not popular. We’re going to continue to do that.”

DEA spokesperson Gordon Taylor said DEA intends to vigorously prosecute people who violate federal pot laws.

“Anyone who distributes or cultivates marijuana is in violation,” Taylor said. “In terms of DEA enforcement, not much has changed. DEA does not target the sick or the dying, rather we target criminals engaged in illegally cultivating and trafficking in drugs. We’re going to look at it on a case by case basis.”

California officials have been weak and passive in their reaction to federal threats. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom said federal raids in his city did not mean San Francisco would reverse its efforts to guarantee patient access to marijuana.

However, he implied support for the raids, saying, “We want to make sure medical marijuana clubs are operating as they should, and appropriately, that people are not abusing their right and privilege to dispense medical marijuana.”

Despite the Raich ruling and problems in states that have already legalized medpot, more states are close to legalizing it, or at least are debating legalization. These include Rhode Island, New Mexico, Minnesota, New Jersey, Connecticut, Wisconsin, and even Texas and Alabama.

Nathan Sands, spokesperson for a California medical cannabis dispensaries organization called The Compassionate Coalition, says the Raich loss, raids, dispensary regulations and bans, and other adversity has made the cannabis community stronger. The Coalition is one of several organizations, along with ASA, that has honed its public advocacy and media lobbying skills during both Raich eras.

The Coalition organizes patients, lobbyists, and expert witnesses for public meetings, legislative testimony and media presentations. It provides referrals to doctors, dispensaries, patient support networks, and attorneys. Coalition representatives attend court hearings when medicinal cannabis patients, growers and providers are being prosecuted.

“Dispensaries and growers face harassment and prosecution by DEA and IRS, and operators may serve prison time,” Sands said. “Dispensary operators face all the challenges that any small business owner does, plus the potential for DEA raids. Most dispensary owners want to pay state and federal taxes, but doing so could cause the IRS to seize their assets. We’re seeing more IRS audits and seizures, all from cases where the dispensary owner tried to operate legitimately by paying federal taxes. However, the 150 plus dispensaries in California are not likely to go away, and the DEA doesn’t have the resources to shut them all down.”

Sands says most medpot dispensaries are professional, safe and legit, offering hospice services, low-income subsidies, dozens of varieties of potent, often organic medical cannabis and hashish, a varied menu of cannabis edibles and tinctures, as well as all manner of harm reduction smoking accessories, including the ever-popular vaporizer.

“I fully admit that I would have liked to run a coffeeshop in Holland ? it would have been more fun,” Joshua admits. “But I’ve been in shops in this state, and they are every bit as professional as the Dutch. You almost forget that most of the people have cancer, HIV, MS, Vietnam War syndromes, or chronic pain.”

Dispensaries always strive to upgrade the quality of their medical products. According to Sands of the Compassionate Coalition, the industry has created the Medical Cannabis Safety Program (MCSP).

Sands says MCSP facilitates voluntary self-regulation of growers and dispensaries, similar to organic products regimes, to prevent use of pesticides and herbicides, and to increase quality control so cannabis containing pathogens and contaminants is never sold to patients.

Other observers agree that U.S. medpot dispensaries became economic powerhouses and health care beacons in the short time when the Raich ruling was teeter-tottering; they say demand for medical cannabis is skyrocketing as new consumers ? especially elderly patients seeking a healthy alternative to prescription medications ? come on board to create an ever-burgeoning, diversified industry that seems impervious to easy takedown by the feds.

The consensus among insiders is that the DEA would have to wage costly and perhaps deadly actual warfare in the U.S. to get control of the medical cannabis movement and production of the herb for medical use.

“It’s too late to cut down the medical weed,” Joshua quips. “It’s an alternative economy whose time has come.”


Joshua closed his dispensary a week after the police chief advised him to do so, several months before the Supreme Court ruled against Raich.

I asked him what he learned from his experience, and if he regretted opening a medpot club. He replied, “What I learned is that greed, tweakers, thieves, and assholes are just as bad for medical cannabis dispensaries as police, but nobody can keep me from helping patients. I’ve got a new business plan, and am providing marijuana in a way more secret way, that nobody will ever find out. There’s nothing the DEA or Supreme Court can do about it.”