SAN FRANCISCO -- Amid a bare-knuckle fight with the federal government to keep his medical marijuana dispensary open, Steve DeAngelo had an idea: if federal prosecutors wouldn't allow his patients to come to him, he would go to them.
"We decided to launch our delivery service because the federal government is trying to seize our properties," DeAngelo explained. DeAngelo's dispensary, Harborside Health Center, is the largest of its kind in the world. "We wanted to be able to continue serving our patients, even if we have to close our doors."
Harborside's delivery service is open to all card-carrying California medical marijuana patients who become members of the collective and, in many cases, offers free, same-day delivery to the entire San Francisco Bay Area.
The shift from a brick-and-mortar model to one based on home delivery is becoming increasingly common in California, where years of federal crackdowns on dispensaries have made selling medical marijuana from a physical storefront an increasingly risky proposition.
"I've definitely seen an increase in the number of delivery services," said Dale Sky Jones, executive chancellor of the Oakland-based medical marijuana trade school Oaksterdam University. Years ago, Oaksterdam offered a class in how to run a delivery service, but quickly cancelled it due to lack of interest. The university has now brought the class back as more people are looking to start their own door-to-door operations.
Though California voters legalized medical marijuana in 1996, there's long been tension between advocates and the approximately 200 municipalities that have banned pot clubs.
"If communities are not comfortable with a storefront service, delivery may be the best way to ensure access to people who need it," said Jones, who noted that delivery services have the potential to serve as a compromise between medical marijuana boosters and neighbors concerned about the negative effects of living near physical dispensaries -- even though evidence suggests that pot clubs actually reduce crime in surrounding neighborhoods.
"A storefront dispensary draws more attention than some guy driving around with weed in his trunk," said Kris Hermes of the pro-pot group Americans of Safe Access. "I think these services will be generally permitted by local governments."
That hasn't stopped some California cities from cracking down on delivery services. While the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has threatened delivery services in Southern California, most of the antagonism has come at the local level.
In the months after a San Luis Obispo civil grand jury released a report saying that marijuana delivery services had created a "gray" market, the city council in the nearby town of Arroyo Grande voted to block medical marijuana delivery services from operating within its boundaries.
That "gray area" is largely due to the lack of a statewide regulatory body governing medical cannabis, the grand jury report said. While many cities and counties have regulations governing dispensaries, only a few have a specific permitting system for delivery services.
"If a delivery service wanted to open up in Los Angeles and do it all by the book, they couldn't get licensed, even if they wanted to, because there's no system in place for doing that," explained DeAngelo.
"I've heard expressions of concerns about the situation from law enforcement and I think that's pretty reasonable," DeAngelo added. Other medical marijuana advocates also said more rules need to be put in place to ensure these businesses don't simply become cover for the black market.
A bill currently making its way through the the California legislature may do just that. Introduced by Assembly Member Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), the bill would create a new regulatory body under the aegis of the Alcoholic Beverage Commission overseeing the entire medical marijuana supply chain from cultivation to point of sale.
The legislation, which supporters said may get a vote before the state Assembly later this month, doesn't specifically mention delivery services, but it leaves open the possibility that the newly created regulatory agency could take delivery operations under its purview if it chooses.
Much as the explosion in pot delivery services is an outgrowth of California's internal fight over medical cannabis, DeAngelo said he sees Harborside's expansion into delivery as something largely driven by external circumstances.
"If all our physical locations are forced to close, there's no question we'd go delivery-only, but I'd view that as a strategic retreat," said DeAngelo. "There's no way patients can get the level of convenience or service with just delivery. There's a need for both options."