In 2007, HuffPost's Ryan Grim visited Harborside Health Center as dispensaries were being raided across California. The owners thought that the coming election would make everyone's life easier. In the wake of the Obama administration's decision to target Harborside, we're re-running Chapter 12 of This Is Your Country On Drugs, set in Bush-era California.
A first-time visitor to Harborside Health Center might have a hard time believing he's about to enter "an extraordinary environment of medical care, honesty, and friendliness," as the place describes itself online. Situated in a nondescript warehouse just off the freeway in Oakland, California, it's labeled only with the giant digits of its street number, 1840. Two security guards in blue are posted outside, and the facility is also equipped with motion detectors, video and audio surveillance and laser alarms. The guards are, in fact, extraordinarily friendly, offering professional smiles to those who approach. But they're not exactly welcoming, and for good reason: At Harborside, no one gets in without a medical-cannabis card or a recommendation from a doctor.
I'd come with a federal medical researcher who'd recently finished a long study of medical-cannabis clubs in the Bay Area and was able to vouch for me. But it's not exactly impossible to get a card or a recommendation. Ads in alt-weeklies throughout the state advertise doctors willing to give a consultation to anyone who has one of a seemingly endless list of symptoms and illnesses that might be treatable with medical marijuana. Take the ad for Aldridge Medical Care that runs in the LA Weekly and features a guy wearing a white coat with a stethoscope hung around his neck. Walk-ins are accepted, the text states, as long as the patient suffers from "pain, migraines, cramps, anxiety, depression, ADHD, nausea, IBS, insomnia, etc."
Once you get the card, it's not much harder to find a shop. On the very same page of the Weekly, the Green Earth Pharmacy offers "Free Samples" to "first time patients with this ad." And for the consumer looking for choices, there's WeedTRACKER.com, which, yes, tracks the varieties of weed available at Harborside and similar centers. ("[W]e carry over 50 different types of buds, plus all our edibles and concentrates. If we don't have what you are looking for, we probably have something you will like," the Harborside Web site promises.) If you're not an official medical-cannabis patient, WeedTRACKER suggests that you "click here" -- which sends you directly to Google, a site almost as good at finding pot dispensaries.
We walked through Harborside's metal detector and waited for the two owners, a guy named David Wedding Dress and his partner, Steve DeAngelo. They opened the center in October 2006, on a day that three other clubs in the Bay Area were raided. "We had to decide in that moment whether or not we were really serious about this and whether we were willing to risk arrest for it," said DeAngelo. "And we decided we were gonna open our doors. And we did, and we haven't looked back since. The only way I'll stop doing what I'm doing is if they drag me away in chains. And as soon as they let me out, I'll be back doing it again." After less than a year, the shop was doing $1 million a month in revenue.
In the next room were a half-dozen glassed-over counters where Harborside personnel were describing the various strains of marijuana available to customers. Marijuana's major ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, combines with more than 30 other active agents called cannabinoids. It's not clear how the interaction of THC and cannabinoids impacts the user's experience, but THC taken by itself has a different effect than marijuana. Different varieties of the plant also have different effects. Cannabis sativa provides a speedy, uplifting high. Cannabis indica, often recommended for pain relief, knocks you out stone-cold. Most of the pot on sale is a mix of the two, and a young woman behind one counter elaborately explained the benefits of each and whether it had been grown indoors, outdoors, in the shade, or in the open and when in its life cycle it was harvested. "Green Erkle is Purple Erkle picked before it turns purple," she offered. "It's a sativa-indica blend heavier on the sativa."
Continuing the tour, Dress pressed a finger to an electric scanner, opening the door to a back room. Three men sat in a waiting room with duffel bags full of marijuana. In the next room, two Harborside employees were sorting through the deliveries and negotiating prices with guys who could reasonably be called drug dealers.
Patriotic potheads love to point out that cannabis was grown at Jamestown, that George Washington might have used hashish, and that Thomas Jefferson wrote a draft of the Declaration of Independence on hemp-fiber paper. But recent history offers more compelling reasons that marijuana is a definitively American drug: Since the 1930s, it's slotted neatly into the age-old debate over chemically induced pleasure versus chemically induced pain relief. Since the 1990s, it's been at the center of a conflict between states' right and federal authority. As of this writing, it's considered by advocates and opponents alike to be the most likely of all controlled substances to change the terms of U.S. drug policy.
Of course, the medical-marijuana movement is hardly unprecedented in our national history. During prohibition, congressional hearings were held on "medical beer," a serious effort to get around the law. There has always been some legitimacy to the medical-use argument: Alcohol and marijuana can both make people feel better. But there's also always been some cynicism. In March 1921, under the scare-quoted headline "BREWERS JUBILANT OVER 'MEDICAL' BEER," the New York Times dryly noted that "one physician in Chicago wrote 7,000 prescriptions for liquor, none for less than a pint, in the course of a few weeks." Marijuana Policy Project founder Rob Kampia has conceded that he originally backed medical marijuana as the first step toward what he calls "recreational marijuana." (He's also said that, after meeting hundreds of doctors and patients, he's been persuaded that medical marijuana is a legitimate end in itself.)
A committed activist, Harborside's DeAngelo has been involved in efforts to legalize marijuana for years. Trying to put him and Dress at ease during my visit, I told them that I used to work for MPP and explained the organization's long-term goal of making medical marijuana legal across the country. It was a risky thing to do. I'd forgotten about the rift that exists between the different factions of the legalization movement, and I didn't know where the Harborside owners stand.
Kampia "has presented MPP as if they're a policy group, that they don't use drugs -- Oh no, not us," NORML's Keith Stroup told me, typifying the disdain many in the movement hold for an organization that they see as arrogant, domineering, and too beholden to its primary benefactor, Progressive insurance head Peter Lewis. "Rob is a whore, if you wanna know what I think," Stroup added. "I don't think he has any principals at all. But he's a talented whore. He sucks up well to rich people, so he's got his role. But he's routinely hated in the movement, not just at NORML."
The haters aren't waiting for progress in Washington -- they've just gone ahead and done it. California-based Americans for Safe Access (ASA) and other grassroots groups rely on contributions from patients and pot clubs for funding and take a more movement-oriented approach. ASA, which claims to be "the largest national member-based organization of patients, medical professionals, scientists and concerned citizens promoting safe and legal access to cannabis for therapeutic use and research," has brought the California Highway Patrol to court over medical-marijuana confiscations and worked with local governments to develop regulations for pot dispensaries.
"Well, I'm glad we don't have to wait for MPP," said DeAngelo, an ASA member. "We hope to get it done much sooner than that."
Indeed, the clubs have come a long way since the August day in 1996 when Dennis Peron heard boots pounding up the stairs of his Cannabis Buyers Club in San Francisco's Castro district and thought he was being robbed. His club had been openly selling marijuana to the ill -- and, allegedly, the non-ill -- since 1991. That year, San Francisco voters passed Proposition P, which made enforcement of laws against medical marijuana the city police's lowest priority. Within days of Peron's arrest -- which was made with a deliberate lack of assistance from local authorities -- four more clubs had opened.
"Repression isn't used to that reaction," suggested DeAngelo. "Repression is used to bringing down the hammer and having a ripple effect. Instead, all they did with Peron was cut off the head, and now the four managers needed somewhere to go. So they started their own clubs."
A few months after Peron's arrest, the voters of California legalized medical marijuana with Proposition 215. The people who'd opened the state's first shops quickly found themselves overwhelmed by demand. "The first dispensaries were started by activists, really well-intentioned people who didn't have any business experience, who didn't have any capital, who didn't know how to manage or run a business, who often didn't really know that much about the cannabis business because they were activists, not dealers," said DeAngelo, who proudly keeps detailed accounting records at Harborside. "There were so many patients flocking to them. They found themselves, without even trying to, in the middle of these very lucrative businesses bringing in millions of dollars a year."
In a pattern that would repeat itself in cities across the state, a second wave of entrepreneurs entered the fray. In San Francisco, pot clubs quickly outnumbered McDonald's franchises. Their owners had the same motivation as those of the Golden Arches: profit. Out went the idealism that had helped to police a business illegal on the federal level and quasi-legal on the local level. Though medical marijuana wasn't prohibited anymore, it wasn't regulated or licensed, either, with no central authority controlling zoning, licensing, or consumer protection. And despite the state law, some aggressive law-enforcement officials -- including the far-right state attorney general Dan Lungren, who'd ordered the raid against Peron's club -- still sought to prosecute dispensaries, citing federal law as justification.
"[The second wave of pot clubs] was started by people, unfortunately, who were more interested in those millions of dollars than they were attracted to doing service for the community or moving the medical-cannabis movement forward," said DeAngelo. "So [their clubs] were opened quickly, often in inappropriate locations. They weren't up to code. They were run by people that had shady backgrounds. And inevitably, problems started occurring. There were robberies, there were neighbors and nearby business that complained. Cars were double-parked. There were shootings. There were not good things happening,"
In Oakland in the late '90s, as in San Francisco a few years earlier, federal raids served only to increase the number of cannabis clubs. If a club owner was jailed and his place shuttered, his former staffers often kept themselves employed by opening new clubs. Soon, downtown Oakland was being referred to as "Oaksterdam," host to at least eight pot clubs and a culture of pot smoking. Even some cafes and bars began to allow patrons to smoke on their premises.
Jeff Jones, a longtime medical-marijuana activist, opened a pot club right around the corner from Oakland City Hall -- with the full knowledge of those who worked in the building. He was one of those who, like Peron, jumped out ahead of the pack without any legal protection from the state. He told me that he opened his shop in July 1996, five months before the election. City politicians, he says, had been generally supportive but were unsure of what to do next. In March of that year, the city council had set up a task force to study the medical-pot issue and passed a resolution endorsing Jones' club. "'What do you want, another liquor store?'" Jones said he'd ask cops and council members whenever they got squeamish.
Local politicos were certain that Prop 215 would fail and that he would then have to close his shop. Indeed, some were actively lobbying against the legislation. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who as mayor of San Francisco had opposed the movement, said that the proposed law was "riddled with loopholes so big that it would have the effect of legalizing marijuana."
She was partly right, but 56 percent of the state didn't care. "They were blown away when we won," Jones said of city officials. "'What do we do now, Jeff?'" Oakland politicians had company in their surprise: Eleven days after California passed Prop 215 and Arizona approved its own medical-cannabis law, Clinton Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey convened a high-level meeting to formulate a response. The opposition had been caught flat-footed. California and Arizona, he vowed, would be the last two states to legalize medical marijuana.
McCaffrey summoned two of the initiative's most vocal opponents, Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates and California Narcotic Officers' Association spokesman Tom Gorman, to D.C. to plot how to thwart implementation of the law. (At this same meeting, the participants conjured up the anti-pot advertising campaign that led to accusations of federally sponsored payola.) McCaffrey announced that the federal government would work hard against doctors and patients involved with medical marijuana, going after the licenses of physicians who recommended it. Doctors sued, arguing that the penalty violated their First Amendment rights, and won a landmark victory.
Since then, medical-cannabis centers have spread across the state of California, and they now represent the single greatest threat to current pot-prohibition policies. If they remain successful -- and, as Harborside's self-image has it, "professional" -- they could fundamentally alter America's cultural relationship with drugs. The backers of prohibition know this, and they've dug in against medical marijuana, making it a major target of the drug war.
In McCaffrey's defense, there was little that he could have done to beat Prop 215. The movement had been gaining strength in response to another phenomenon that the federal government had initially ignored: the AIDS epidemic. "Back before the AIDS epidemic, the marijuana movement was restricted to glaucoma. Then once AIDS came on the scene, boom, it exploded and that put us over the top," said Mykey Barbitta, who runs the Compassion Care Center, a descendant of the Cannabis Buyers Club located at the same spot on Market Street as Peron's clinic. "The medical-cannabis movement was a response to a need, HIV," agreed Randi Webster, founder of the San Francisco Patients Care Collective, who lost more than 30 friends in the early years of the AIDS epidemic. "It started as a treatment for patients with extreme bone disease."
Long before the Reagan administration was taking AIDS seriously, people suffering and dying from it spread the word that marijuana could ease nausea and increase appetite, both crucial to living with the disease. Some early AIDS patients turned to a little-known Food and Drug Administration pilot program that allowed those with legitimate medical need to get marijuana directly from the government. The program dated to 1976, when Washington, D.C., resident and glaucoma patient Robert Randall, using the medical-necessity argument, essentially forced the feds into growing pot on a farm in Mississippi. Today, a handful of surviving patients get a monthly canister containing 300 pre-rolled joints.
The Compassionate Investigational New Drug program had very few initial participants. For one thing, marijuana was widely available, cheap, and of increasing quality. For another, the nation had a permissive attitude toward the drug, with even President Jimmy Carter calling for decriminalization. There was little incentive for a patient to apply, especially given a built-in disincentive: that your name would now be on a federal list associated with marijuana. That changed with HIV. By 1991, Randall asserts in his 1998 book, Marijuana Rx: The Patients' Fight for Medicinal Pot, the once-tiny program had 34 enrollees. As AIDS patients discovered pot's palliative effects, cancer patients took notice, too.
"Before the AIDS epidemic hit, there were very few people who applied to be in this program, this federal program to get marijuana," said Amanda Reiman, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on medical marijuana facilities in California. "It was just a handful of people with glaucoma really. But then after that there was a flood of people wanting to get into it, so Bush the first just suspended it all together." In 1992, overwhelmed with applications, the feds closed the Investigational New Drug program to new members.
Two years before, the medical-marijuana movement had received a significant public-relations boost in the form of an elderly San Francisco General Hospital volunteer, Mary Jane Rathbun, who'd realized that marijuana eased the suffering of AIDS patients and allowed them to eat. Brownie Mary, as she became known, was arrested and charged with drug distribution for baking pot brownies and giving them to AIDS patients. Rathbun refused to take any plea bargain, demanding a jury trial and creating a media disaster for the district attorney. The charges were dropped, and Brownie Mary was free to help Peron open the Cannabis Buyers Club and advocate for Prop 215.
By the time that Prop 215 made the ballot, the medical-marijuana movement had some real money on its side. George Soros, an eccentric billionaire on a quest to spread freedom across the globe, had met Ethan Nadelman, a drug-policy wonk with an activist streak, in the early '90s. Soros offered to fund Nadelman's effort to reform drug policies and was soon bankrolling a large percentage of the Prop 215 campaign.
Soros' money made a difference, certainly, but without the grassroots movement behind it, the campaign couldn't have been won. By 1996, many Californians knew at least one cancer or AIDS patient who had benefited from using medical marijuana -- either on the recommendation of a doctor or not. And if they didn't, they had probably heard of the charismatic septuagenarian who gave free brownies to the terminally ill.
Recall that medical-cannabis clubs had opened in San Francisco even before they were legal by state standards, bolstered by the passing of 1991's citywide Proposition P, which urged that doctors "shall not be penalized for or restricted from prescribing hemp preparations for medical purposes." Some local officials, including City Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, had openly supported medical cannabis as early as the '70s. Milk's support of Peron even while he was in prison enraged the right-wing minority trying to hold back the wave. (In fact, conservative supervisor Dan White was apoplectic about Milk's defense of a convicted criminal and there's plenty of reason to believe that it contributed to his decision to walk into City Hall and assassinate him and Moscone. Moscone's acting mayoral replacement, now-U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, immediately reversed Moscone and Milk's pro-medical-marijuana policy.) As the clubs began opening post-1996 throughout the Bay Area, as well as in other parts of the state, most cities decided to work with them, and the few Southern California towns that battled the clubs generally lost in court.
But the Clinton administration and California Attorney General Lungren, a McCaffrey ally then considered a possible GOP vice presidential candidate, had more political firepower than officials in the conservative rural counties that opposed medical pot. On August 4, 1996, agents carried out the raid on Peron's club in the Castro, seizing computers, 40 pounds of marijuana, and medical records. Lungren claimed that Peron had sold pot to an undercover agent for non-medical reasons. According to Peron, the agent had claimed to be an AIDS patient intent on establishing a dispensary for other sufferers.
The attorney general's claim is noteworthy: Peron was selling to those other than medical patients. Prop 215 wouldn't be voted on for another few months, so at the time, it wasn't legal to sell pot to anyone. Public opinion, however, was such that Lungren knew that he couldn't take Peron down just for selling to patients.
That approach continues today at the federal level, with the DEA always claiming that the cannabis-club owners whom it busts had been selling to people other than patients. In 1998, the feds filed suit against and closed down Jones' club, arguing not only that the dispensary had violated the Controlled Substances Act, but also that medical cannabis had not been declared safe by the FDA, making its distribution doubly illegal. The Oakland City Council responded, somewhat desperately, by declaring the club a city agency. The case eventually made it to the Supreme Court, where, in United States v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative, justices overturned the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and ruled that there's no medical-necessity defense in the war on drugs.
"It is clear from the text of the [Controlled Substances] Act that Congress has made a determination that marijuana has no medical benefits worthy of an exception," writes Justice Clarence Thomas in the May 14, 2001 decision. "The statute expressly contemplates that many drugs 'have a useful and legitimate medical purpose and are necessary to maintain the health and general welfare of the American people,' but it includes no exception at all for any medical use of marijuana."
California is often derided as a place that is out of touch with the rest of America. "San Francisco" and "Hollywood" have become political epithets. For Californians, of course, it's the rest of the country that's out of touch. Each Supreme Court decision or thundering threat from the drug czar has only stengthend the state's position on medical marijuana. Public support for it grew even as the anarchic situation brought on by the second wave of cannabis clubs got out of hand. More than 40 localities responded with moratoriums on the opening of new clubs, but reversing legalization was never seriously considered.
The California phenomenon is explained not by the state's divergence from the rest of the country, but rather by its essentially American nature. The state is pluralistic and assertive, populated by a mix of immigrants, transplants, and descendants of people who, not so long ago, picked up stakes and headed out West. California's oft-stereotyped liberalism has a deep libertarian streak, and the state has a vibrant right wing, too, with seven of its cities ranking among the nation's most conservative, according to a 2005 study by the Bay Area Center for Voting Research. In recent years, the state has repeatedly clashed with the White House, not only over medical cannabis, but also over pollution controls and the U.S. Navy's use of submarine-detecting sonar, which threatens California gray whales and other local marine mammals.
In such a place, it's apparently nothing to create a statewide system to tax, regulate, and license a billion-dollar industry that the federal government still equates with the Medellín cartel. Indeed, the Californian mix of liberal compassion and libertarian opposition to federal authority has been essential to nurturing the medical-marijuana movement.
It hasn't been one long, smooth ride, as the moratoriums demonstrate. In 2003, Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown ordered an investigation of the city's cannabis clubs, hoping to clean them up before, as he had warned Jones, the feds did it for him. City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente went a step further, suggesting that Oakland needed only one medical-cannabis dispensary. The resulting regulation shut down all but a few of the shops and the whiff of pot smoke downtown subsided a bit. But the owners of the closed shops simply headed across the bridge to San Francisco, which was still a regulatory Wild West.
Soon enough, though, San Francisco was following Oakland's lead. In the spring of 2005, the city counted within its limits at least 43 unregulated dispensaries, one of them in the same building as a center for drug and alcohol rehabilitation. Others were near schools, day-care centers, and other places that neighborhood folks justifiably tend to hold sacrosanct. In June of that year, the city council instituted a six-month moratorium that would allow it to write and review regulations covering the existing clinics. "The absence of laws has allowed adverse opportunities to emerge," Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who proposed the ban, said at the time.
The dispensaries were also becoming difficult for the cops to countenance. "It's a huge scam," said Capt. Rick Bruce of the San Francisco police, telling the New York Times that dealers were hiding behind the law. "We see guys coming out of these places, and the only description I can come up with is that it looks like a Cheech and Chong movie. They are what you would call your traditional potheads; whether they have a medical condition beyond that is subject to debate."
As municipalities struggled with the details of the reality of medical marijuana, they also joined with activists in the fight against federal intervention. By 2004, another nine states had passed medical-cannabis laws, and the debate in California began to take the turn that the feds feared most. At the time, I was working with the Marijuana Policy Project as a staffer assigned to state-level policy. The organization teamed up with activists in Oakland to help organize and fund the campaign for Measure Z, on behalf of which I did marginal paper-pushing, drafting messages to MPP membership and coordinating with folks on the ground.
Measure Z sought to make enforcement of marijuana laws -- all laws, not just those relating to medical marijuana -- the lowest priority of local law enforcement. In that ambition, it followed in the path of legislation by several other localities that had done the same. It went a significant step further, however, by declaring that the "City of Oakland shall establish a system to license, tax and regulate cannabis for adult use as soon as possible under California law."
That objective didn't faze Rep. Barbara Lee, who represents Oakland. In an op-ed supporting the measure, she adopts a quintessentially Californian stance, equating compassion for patients with resistance to the drug war. "At the state level, we have passed policies to ameliorate the federal drug war, including Proposition 215 in 1996, to allow medical marijuana, and Proposition 36 in 2000, to direct drug offenders to treatment rather than incarceration. Nevertheless, each year California still spends $150 million to arrest, prosecute and imprison marijuana offenders. The drug war has completely failed to control drug use. Since former President Richard Nixon began the drug war in the 1970s, drug use has continued, but imprisonment has soared," she writes.
Some people have asked, why Oakland? The answer is simple. Oakland has a population that has witnessed first-hand the harmful effects of the drug war. It has a serious crime problem that demands the undiluted focus of our law enforcement. It's a compassionate city that has strongly supported the rights of patients to have access to medical marijuana. And here in the Bay Area, voters have a distinguished history of leading the nation in progressive reforms. We deserve policies here in Oakland that reflect the values of our citizens, not those of Attorney General John Ashcroft. Measure Z is a good step in that direction. Vote yes.
Sixty-five percent of the city followed her advice.
By the time I got to MPP, the organization had more than 20 employees and a $6 million budget, about 80 percent of which came from Peter Lewis. MPP assiduously cultivated an image of professionalism to counter the stoner stereotype. "We're known for our accuracy," a co-worker told me when I started. I would hear that mantra over and over again, although I always doubted that's what we were "known for."
MPP assisted with pushing through medical-marijuana laws in Vermont and Rhode Island, and it won a semi-victory in Maryland, where it's now a maximum fine of $100 if you can convince a judge that your pot use is for medical purposes. It also helped win a statewide initiative to legalize medical marijuana in Montana. For a while, it seemed as if MPP's stated goal of "chang[ing] U.S. policies to remove criminal penalties for marijuana use, with a particular emphasis on making marijuana medically available to seriously ill people who have the approval of their physicians" might become a reality.
Legislation favorable to medical cannabis was achieved in 12 states by 2006. But despite such local successes, the MPP and the rest of the medical-marijuana movement have made little progress at the federal level.
In the summer of 2005, the Supreme Court ruled in Gonzales v. Raich that state laws do not shield medical-marijuana growers or users from federal arrest and prosecution. A bloc of five liberal justices reasoned that, in the case of medical marijuana, the Constitution's Commerce Clause gives the feds authority over the states. Notorious originalist Antonin Scalia joined them to make it six.
During oral arguments, Scalia flung himself back in his chair and nearly shouted: "There are some communes that grow marijuana for the medical use of all of the members of the communes!" His actions suggest that has a moral objection to marijuana so powerful that trumps his political beliefs, particularly the extension of federal power. "Scalia tends to be more interested in originalism when it fits into his Catholic social conservatism," George Mason University law professor David Bernstein suggested to me. "Or when he's using it to bludgeon the left."
"I was struck by Scalia's emotional reaction," said Randy Barnett, who argued the case for plaintiffs Angel Raich and Diane Monson. "I didn't know what he was talking about. Had I known he was talking about the cooperatives, I could have corrected him."
Sandra Day O'Connor, who dissented, argued that it is possible for states to allow medical marijuana without undercutting the cherished Commerce Clause, which has also been used to justify national environmental and civil-rights laws. "The states' core police powers have always included authority to define criminal law and to protect the health, safety, and welfare of their citizens," she noted. Rather than accede that, however, the liberal justices took the rather dramatic step of suggesting that, if a federal law is at issue, then that law should should be changed. Citing "respondents' strong arguments that they will suffer irreparable harm" if deprived of medical marijuana, the judges proposed that Congress might want to revise the Controlled Substances Act. "Perhaps even more important," writes John Paul Stevens at the end of his opinion, "is the democratic process, in which the voices of voters allied with these respondents may one day be heard in the halls of Congress."
He was referring to the bipartisan Hinchey-Rohrabacher Amendment, which would ban the federal government from raiding medical-marijuana clinics or arresting users who live in states that have made medical pot legal. Every year since 2003, it had been voted down in Congress, falling some 60 or more votes short. 2005, it turned out, was no different. With the Supreme Court defeat, a lack of support on Capitol Hill, and repeated losses in Nevada, where MPP was trying to legalize what it called "recreational marijuana" for adults 21 and over, the "professional" wing of the medical-marijuana movement was reeling.
"At least some of us think that some of the initiatives [MPP has] launched have been ill-advised and not very well planned out, but that's more a question of competence than it is a question of differing views," said Harborside's DeAngelo. "What the poll numbers have always taught us is that you need to have about a five-percent advantage going into the initiative because you're going to lose numbers in the course of the campaign. You're not going to pick numbers up. They were five or six points down [in Nevada] and they still moved ahead." The initiative lost in 2002, with just 39 percent of the vote, and again in 2006, with 44 percent. In 2004, the campaign forgot to turn in a box of petitions and couldn't get the initiative onto the ballot, even after dumping $1 million into a legal challenge.
From the nation's capital, it looked as if the medical-marijuana movement had stalled out. Even on a local level, Washington lawmakers were hostile to the movement: In 1998, through an amendment to a District of Columbia funding bill spearheaded by Georgia Republican Rep. Bob Barr, Congress had blocked implementation of the district's own medical-cannabis referendum. The legislation went so far as to block counting and certification of the votes, which were later shown to be 69 percent in favor of the law.
"That's about when I decided that I'd been in D.C. about 30 years and I'd earned the right to come someplace where, if I went through the trouble of changing the law, that maybe it would stay changed," said DeAngelo, who helped lead the District effort. "That's what brought me to California."
The same week that I toured Harborside, in the summer of 2007, the federal government sent letters to the landlords of about 150 Los Angeles-area dispensaries. The list would eventually expand to more than 300. The letters politely informed the recipients that their tenants were operating illegal drug-manufacturing and -distribution centers, and that if they didn't boot the renters out, the feds would seize their property. L.A. shop owners, recalled Jeff Jones, were petrified, telling him, "'The sky is falling! I have no protection!' Well, what did you think? You never had any protection."
Jones guessed that blatant advertising in alt-weeklies and pot-focused newspapers and on the Internet brought the federal response. Oakland, he said, had been shrewder. "The city hated advertising," he said. "They were fearful of it. They said, 'It's gonna bring the feds out.' They don't want it."
Today, it's much easier to find a pot club in Los Angeles today than it is in the Bay Area. In 2007, when there were close to 500 L.A. clubs, I pushed opened the door to one, prompting the tattooed owner to rush out from behind a Plexiglas wall: "Whoa, whoa! What are you doing?!" I told him I was a reporter covering the crackdown. Predictably, he consented to an interview only if I didn't identify him. "Some of these guys will sell to anybody. Kids, even," he said. "They're going after those kinds." He said that he, by contrast, checks all pot cards, doesn't sell to children, and provides only small amounts of marijuana to each customer. But ultimately, he conceded, he just prays.
Few, if any, medical-marijuana advocates saw the landlord move coming. Tactically, it was brilliant: Landlords, like most Californians, are generally sympathetic when it comes to medical marijuana. But how many are willing to lose property over it? Allison Margolin, a prominent Los Anegles pot lawyer -- she calls herself "L.A.'s Dopest Attorney" -- said that the landlord letters have led to a significant number of evictions and created a "culture of fear." "But there are still tons of clubs," she added. One club owner took his landlord to court to prevent the eviction and prevailed. His attorney hopes that if the feds now come after the club owner, he can argue that it was a selective prosecution and thus unconstitutional. "It's one of the better ideas I've heard," said Margolin. "I don't know if it'll work, but at least it's an idea."
In the meantime, pot clubs are becoming more and more legitimized in the Golden State. They're even becoming a significant source of above-board state revenue, which bodes well for not only such clubs' long-term survival locally, but also for their viability outside of California.
In the fall of 2006, California clarified to its cannabis dispensaries that they are, in fact, responsible for paying its 7.25 percent sales tax, and had been since 2005. (Depending on the jurisdiction, some clubs are also required to add on a bit for local and county taxes.) Some club owners, backed by ASA, had argued that, as quasi-pharmacies, their businesses were exempt, a line of reasoning dismissed by the state. Others, such as DeAngelo, initially opposed the tax but came to support it, arguing that the perennially underfunded state would get addicted to the tax dollars generated by its 1,000 or so pot clubs -- a number that will continue to climb absent any major federal intervention.
Harborside is charged an 8.75 percent tax. With revenue of around $1 million per month, its annual sales-tax bill comes in at something like $875,000 per year. And that's just one shop. Betty Yee, chairwoman of the State Board of Equalization, which oversees tax collection, told me that there's no way to break out exactly how much money the state is getting from pot clubs because it doesn't require them to state on their tax forms what product they sell. ("Regardless of legal status, anyone can get a seller's permit," she explained.) However, she did release the tax records of some clubs that had been raided by the federal government, noting that because they employed sizable numbers of people, they also paid state and federal income and payroll taxes. The Compassion Center, licensed by Alameda County, paid $3 million before being shuttered in October 2007 by the DEA. Nature's Medicinal, licensed by Kern Country, paid close to $1 million in 2007, which included $203,000 in state and federal income taxes, $365,000 in payroll taxes, and $427,000 in sales taxes. The Compassion Center employed and provided health benefits to 50 people; Nature's Medicinal 25. (The demise of the latter wasn't universally deplored by the medical-pot community, however: It's alleged affinity for high-powered weaponry didn't jibe with the pacifist vibe the industry espouses.)
It's estimated that between 150,000 and 350,000 Californians have medical-marijuana cards. (There's no comprehensive state list, for obvious reasons.) A 1999 study by Australian economists Kenneth W. Clements and Mert Daryal found that a daily marijuana smoker consumes on average 18.57 ounces of pot annually. They found once-a-week-or-more smokers toke 13 ounces; once-a-monthers inhale 1.7 ounces. (The emphasis must be on the "or-more" in the former case, otherwise those folks were puffing a quarter ounce per sitting.) Let's assume, then, that out of about 200,000 medical-pot smokers, half are daily users. That number yields nearly 2 million ounces of pot. At $400 an ounce, we're talking about nearly $800 million worth of weed. At the lowest sales tax rate, 7.25, that's nearly $60 million. If there are 50,000 occasional smokers, they'd kick in another $20 million. The monthly smokers are worth another $3 million, for a total of more than $80 million. And that's just sales tax. In the case of Nature's Medicinal, sales tax made up 42 percent of total taxes paid, suggesting that the California pot industry would pay total taxes of about $200 million per year. Even if that estimate is wildly overblown, the state is unlikely to give revenue anywhere near that up easily: A special notice sent to clubs by the Board of Equalization assured sellers they "may decline to provide information on products sold due to concerns about self-incrimination."
A November 2006 report by the City of Oakland's Measure Z Oversight Committee came up with similar figures. It estimated that Californians consume between $870 million and $2 billion in medical marijuana per year, generating sales-tax revenue between $70 million and $120 million. In 2004, when Oakland's clubs were thriving, it took in, according to city records, $2.3 million in taxes on more than $26 million in revenue. As the feds swept through, that dropped, in 2006, to just $477,000 in taxes on $5.5 million in revenue. Two million dollars pulled from an annual city budget of about $900 million isn't exactly spare change.
NORML and ASA estimate that medical users make up about 10 percent of California's pot smokers. But given the laundry list of conditions that qualify someone as a legit patient, it's safe to assume that we're looking at a serious growth industry here. If the system eventually encompassed all of California's pot smokers, the tax revenue would be in the range of $2 billion. As the movement evolves into an industry, the feds will find it increasingly difficult to roll it back.
The advent of the medical-marijuana industry is a crucial development in the medical-marijuana movement. But the industry's activist roots are what keep it from toppling under the weight of federal pressure. Marijuana might be good business, pro-cannabis do-gooders suggest, but it does actually help sick and dying people.
The San Francisco Patients Care Collective, founded in 1999, has a lineage stretching all the way back to Peron and Brownie Mary. It's an emphatically noncommercial venture, according to its owner, Randi Webster. "I want no mercantile terms associated with me. We don't 'buy' our supply; we 'get' it," she said, wearing a purple velvet dress, thick glasses, and a crown of pot leaves. "'Club' is like the N-word. We prefer 'facility.'"
A look around her facility confirmed that she's not profit-hungry: The clients all appeared to be in serious need of medical treatment with little ability to pay for it -- no fakers here. The collective also serves as a community center. There's a small stage for open-mic night, and bingo night is also popular, said Webster. Peron's spot, which has gone through a series of names as it survived bust after bust, maintains an activist feel, too. It offers a free joint to patients with no money, free Internet access, and free video games on a flat-screen TV. A framed letter on the wall thanks the club for what it does for patients and the community. The writer thanks Peron for an offer of a tour, saying that she hopes to make it one day. Signed, Nancy Pelosi.
She wasn't yet the Speaker of the House when she penned that letter, but she wasn't the political equivalent of a nickel bag of stems and seeds, either. Pelosi's support of medical marijuana cost her nothing back at home, and it apparently hasn't cost her in Washington, either. Still, how to explain the movement's failure on a national scale?
A series of conversations I had with a number of state legislators -- along with a Zogby International poll that MPP commissioned that year -- explains some of it. Simply put, California succeeded in legalizing medical marijuana because it succeeded in legalizing medical marijuana. In 2004, I was sent to Salt Lake City for the National Conference of State Legislators as an MPP representative. Sitting behind the booth, my co-coworkers and I endured the typical jokes -- "Got any samples?"; "You should be giving away brownies" -- so could have a chance to persuade lawmakers to introduce bills legalizing medical pot.
At a luncheon, I happened to be seated with legislators from Utah. With no thought that I might succeed, I laid out the arguments on behalf of medical marijuana to my meal companions. After some back and forth, each one of them ultimately told me that he would personally support medical marijuana, but he was dead certain that none of his colleagues would. Compare that attitude to the Zogby poll, which was taken in Vermont and Rhode Island and in the midst of ultimately successful legislative campaigns to pass medical marijuana bills. Seventy-one percent of Vermonters said that they backed medical marijuana. So did 69 percent of Rhode Islanders. No big surprise there; similar numbers have appeared in poll after poll across the country. But Zogby threw in an extra question: "Regardless of your own opinion, do you think the majority of people in [Vermont or Rhode Island] support making marijuana medically available, or do you think the majority opposes making marijuana medically available?"
In Vermont, only 38 percent of people thought a majority supported it -- even though support was over 70 percent. Thirty-seven percent thought that a majority opposed medical marijuana, and a quarter said that they weren't sure. Rhode Islanders were also pretty sure that their fellow citizens were nowhere near as enlightened as they themselves were: Only a quarter said that a majority of their fellow citizens probably supported medical marijuana. A majority -- 56 percent -- said wrongly that there was no majority support, and 18 percent said that they weren't sure.
For medical-marijuana advocates, the message of those numbers couldn't be clearer: Once Americans realize that they agree with themselves, then the debate is over.
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of Prop 215, MPP commissioned Mason-Dixon Polling & Research to survey all of the states that had by then enacted medical-marijuana laws. In each but one, support for the legislation had risen considerably since it initially passed. (The exception was Montana, where 62 percent of people voted for a medical-marijuana law in 2004; two years later, support was still at 62 percent.) In California, where cannabis clubs were popping up all over, 72 percent of respondents said that they supported the law, with 47 percent saying that they strongly supported it. That approval even cut across party lines, with 56 percent of Republicans saying that they agreed with the law, along with overwhelming numbers of Democrats and independents.
California, which had had its law in place the longest, saw the biggest jump in support. Other states averaged about a 10-point uptick since their legislation passed. "Real-world experience demystifies it," said MPP spokesman Bruce Mirken. "People see that, in fact, the world doesn't end, the state doesn't become awash in marijuana, their kids don't all turn into potheads. Life pretty much goes on. "
The polling data and those conversations in Utah also explain why the first wave of states to legalize medical cannabis had to do so through the ballot box rather than through the legislature. Alone, with a secret ballot in hand, Americans have consistently voted yes to medical marijuana in dozens of elections. (The one exception is South Dakota, where a medical-marijuana law was voted down 52 percent to 48 percent in 2006.)
By about 2010, if the pace keeps up, more than half of the American population will live in states where it's legal to smoke pot for medical purposes -- which in California means for the relief of not only glaucoma, AIDS, and cancer, but also of IBS, insomnia, and that infinitely flexible catch-all, "etc." Although some states originally limited medical marijuana to specific ailments, these have gradually expanded access under pressure from patients not covered by the law.
The federal government, it would seem, is up against the tide of public opinion. Nearly half of Americans polled now say that marijuana should be taxed and regulated much like alcohol. Solid majorities -- from two-thirds to three-quarters -- support medical marijuana. Liberals, especially the young ones who run the blogosphere, don't have the same fear of being called soft on crime that dogged their Clinton-era predecessors and have embraced drug-policy reform as a defining issue. Meanwhile, the religious right that helped elect George W. Bush to the presidency has become disillusioned with his administration's perceived moral failings and once again begun to fade from politics. As it's done so, it's taken its calls for temperance legislation with it, leaving the libertarian wing of the Republican party ascendant. The feds' fear is that, if they lose ground now, they won't ever regain it.
With that in mind, Drug Czar Walters has routinely called out the medical-marijuana movement as a fraud, an attempt to legalize drugs using sick and dying people as a cover. He reiterated that take in a discussion that the White House posted online in December 2007. "Funded by millions of dollars from those whose goal it is to legalize marijuana outright, marijuana lobbyists have been deployed to Capitol Hill and to States across the Nation to employ their favored tactic of using Americans' natural compassion for the sick to garner support for a far different agenda," he said. "These modern-day snake oil proponents cite testimonials -- not science -- that smoked marijuana helps patients suffering from AIDS, cancer, and other painful diseases 'feel better.' While smoking marijuana may allow patients to temporarily feel better, the medical community makes an important distinction between inebriation and the controlled delivery of pure pharmaceutical medication. If you want to learn more about this, we have information available that shows how medical marijuana laws increase drug-related crime and protect drug dealers."
Wedding Dress, of course, has a different way of describing what he's up to. "I still believe that our intention and what we're doing in the world is actually insulating us," he said, adding that Harborside's legit relationship with the city also helps. He offers Hope Net, a club that San Francisco police protected from the federal government, as a demonstration of the connection that a responsible pot clinic can forge with local officials. "That dispensary is still open and functioning," he said, "and no one was charged."
Not yet, at least. "I'm not as optimistic as my partner in terms of the federal threat," DeAngelo said. "The federal strategy is very difficult to read, and we don't know where they're going to hit next. Anybody who opens a dispensary has to be ready to go to federal prison."