The Medical Marijuana Movement Grows in Santa Barbara
Emerald Dreams and Smoky Realities
Thursday, May 3, 2007
In a small two-bedroom home, nestled anonymously on the upper Westside of Santa Barbara, the lights are humming right now. Vaguely Victorian in style with a white picket fence and a well-manicured front lawn, the home does little to betray the blooming emerald harvest growing inside its walls. A woman walking her dog passes by the driveway, urging her four-legged friend to “do your business,” never giving a second thought to the perpetually drawn window shades of the back room, the constantly spinning electricity meter humming in the side yard, or the sweet odor of fresh ganja blowing in the breeze.
By Paul Wellman
Far from a typical closet marijuana growing operation, medical marijuana gardens-enjoying the freedoms of state legal status-often employ sophisticated technologies to produce some of the highest-grade marijuana known to humans.
On the inside, behind a series of remarkably unlocked doors, several dozen marijuana plants grow under the warm white glow of two high-wattage light bulbs. The room is tropical and welcoming, a meticulously built and cared for growing space complete with CO generators, fans, high-tech venting, massive air filters, digital ballasts, and an atmospheric control panel that not only governs the humidity but also powers an iPod to play smooth jazz when the lights are off. In a matter of days, this secret garden will yield at least four pounds of high-grade medicinal cannabis known as “purple kush”-every gram of it, at least in the eyes of our town’s law enforcement, completely legal while simultaneously being, in the esteem of the federal government, unfailingly illegal.
Even with its state legality proven by a wall full of photocopied doctors’ recommendations and a notebook filled with legal documents naming the tenant of the house as the “primary caregiver” for several medical marijuana patients, standing in the grow room feels undeniably like an illegal act. After all, we live in a country that’s been culturally conditioned to view cannabis as criminal since the drug was banned in 1937. Sensing my discomfort, my host patted me on the back. “I know it takes some getting used to, but try and relax, man. It’s medicine,” he smiles, “no different than going to a Tylenol factory.”
By Paul Wellman
Despite being a Schedule 1 illicit substance in the eyes of the federal government, and the State of California, for that matter, literally thousands of Santa Barbarans are legally consuming marijuana with their doctors’ approval (pictured above, sans the ganja leaf).
Unlike Tylenol, of course, you can’t just pick up your daily marijuana dose at Rite Aid or Vons-though, as of late, it has become just about that easy for people with a doctor’s recommendation. To that end, after this herb has been dried and properly manicured, it will be delivered to one of at least 10 medical marijuana dispensaries within Santa Barbara city limits where it will fetch up to $20 a gram from patients looking for the purple kush’s trademark high, now famous for its pain-killing powers. And, just like Tylenol or any prescription medicine, chances are the kush will come in a traditional pill bottle complete with warning labels and instructions.
Welcome to the 2007 version of reefer madness, where in Santa Barbara, there are more marijuana markets than Starbucks and thousands of citizens, with their doctor’s approval, are legally lighting up every day. But with business booming in this multimillion-dollar cottage industry, law enforcement agencies are left scratching their heads at how to navigate the unprecedentedly ambiguous legal haze blurring the lines of what’s cool and what’s criminal. What’s most cool, though, is that regulations appear to be on the way, and, surprisingly, they’re not coming from the government: Santa Barbara’s marijuana industry is starting to self-regulate, and for everyone-from growers and sellers, to patients and police-that should be good news.
A Hazy History
It’s been 11 years since California voters bucked a six-decades-old federal prohibition on marijuana and approved Proposition 215, effectively making it legal for adults who have a doctor’s permission to grow and use cannabis for medical purposes. Though critics feared such a vote would open the floodgates for criminal chaos, the result has been quite the contrary. At first, only a few outposts quietly opened their doors to dispense the forbidden herb to AIDS patients, cancer victims, and assorted others. Like a group unsure if the lake had frozen enough to walk across, these strong-willed activists treaded lightly, spoke in whispers, and prepared for the worst.
Things took a turn in 2004 with the passage of California Senate Bill 420, which gave slightly more specific protections for patients, distributors, and doctors who recommend cannabis. That nod from the state legislature allowed cannabis clubs and marijuana-smoking (and -eating) patients to step out of the shadows and onto the ice. From Eureka to San Diego, literally hundreds of clubs opened and tens of thousands of Californians got their doctor’s permission to toke. Nearly one dozen other states ratified similar laws, including Oregon, Colorado, Arizona, Maine, Montana, and, just last month, New Mexico.
Here on the South Coast, only two dispensaries walked on the thin ice of the pre-2004 era. In nondescript storefronts, operating almost anonymously behind locked doors and thick security glass, the Compassion Center and Santa Barbara Patients’ Group survived robberies, public scorn, skeptical landlords, and the ever-present threat of a federal raid. The guarded hush-hush behavior continued without incident for years until about two years ago, when Santa Barbara’s medical marijuana dispensaries grew exponentially almost overnight. That proliferation was further supported last November, when an overwhelming majority of Santa Barbara voters passed Measure P, making adult use of marijuana-both medical and non-medical-the lowest law enforcement priority. Today, there are 10 fully functioning dispensaries within city limits, plus a couple more in the planning stages (including the first one ever in Goleta due next month). For a relatively small town, the amount impresses everyone in the trade.
While certainly aware of them, spokespeople from every local law enforcement agency admitted to some sticker shock when informed of the recent rise in clubs. Most were not aware the number had grown past the initial two, let alone increased five-fold in less than 20 months. As S.B. County District Attorney Christie Stanley remarked upon hearing the news, “You’re kidding me? Wow, that’s something I didn’t know.”
In fact, not knowing is exactly the problem for everyone involved, due to the murky nature of medical marijuana’s legality. Because Senate Bill 420 is in direct opposition to federal law, Sacramento was reluctant to fill it with the teeth of regulations and bite of enforcement they would normally assign to such landmark legislation. As a result, the system is devoid of checks and balances and even lacks a unilateral understanding of what the law means. For example, in Santa Barbara, the only hurdle a would-be dispensary needs to clear in order to open is the simple act of securing a business license from the city. There are absolutely no other obstacles in the way, which, for a federally illegal drug, tends to raise some eyebrows.
“It’s such a grey area,” Santa Barbara police spokesperson Paul McCaffrey said recently. “Basically [with the right paperwork], you can get a bunch of marijuana-or start growing it-and then sell it as medical marijuana. As appalling as it seems, you are essentially untouchable to us. : It’s not just a reality, but also state law.”
The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department takes a slightly more aggressive stance and, as a result, only one dispensary currently exists in its contracted communities-though at least two other clubs are looking to open soon in the North County. Spokesperson Erik Raney explained last month, “It is very frustrating from the law enforcement side because we are forced to decipher the law and the law itself is not very clear at all.” Though deputies regularly let people go who can prove they are “legal” cannabis consumers, Raney guaranteed “debatable” infractions were always investigated and usually led to an initial arrest, though not always actual charges. District Attorney Stanley could recall only two instances of such prosecution in the past 11 years: one was a Buellton club that was shut in 2006 (but has since reopened) and the other was a woman who was growing “too much” medical marijuana (though she was allowed to keep the 70-plus plants for which she had proper paperwork).
Clearing the Smoke
Confused? You’re not alone. “From a legal standpoint, it is an absolutely fascinating problem,” said esteemed Santa Barbara attorney Joe Allen. “The unregulated nature of all this leaves everybody-the police, club owners, patients, and caregivers-very uncertain about what they are allowed to be doing.” In recent years, Allen, who’s held just about every legal title in his career except judge, has become a de facto expert on medical marijuana. Not only is he kept on retainer for several clubs, but he’s also the legal advisor for the city’s Measure P Committee and has successfully defended Goleta physician and outspoken medical cannabis advocate Dr. David Bearman, who was attacked by the Medical Board of California (MBC) for prescribing marijuana.
“The boundaries of protection are so fuzzy that it is very, very hard to even know when you are crossing those boundaries,” explained Allen. “Can a thousand patients band together and start a cannabis plantation in Santa Ynez? Probably, but who knows? Unfortunately, because no real regulations exist, the only vehicle by which we work this out is: People get arrested and have to go to court.” So would regulations or a dispensary review board help? “Absolutely,” said Allen. “City or county standards would go a long way in clearing up many of these issues.”
What is legal? According to Senate Bill 420, Californians with a doctor’s approval can carry as much as a half-pound (eight ounces) of marijuana and grow as many as six mature plants. That’s pretty clear-cut, but the situation hazes over with the role of “caregivers,” those assigned by patients to grow and provide their medicine. When patients join a cannabis club, they sign paperwork that establishes the club as their caregiver, allowing the dispensary to grow and possess marijuana in their name. So a club with 1,000 members could have as many as 500 pounds and grow 6,000 plants. But since there’s no oversight whatsoever, the formula is ripe for exploitation and constantly flirts with criminal status.
Though assuring she would “never get in the way of compassionate use,” the situation is disconcerting for District Attorney Stanley. “Crimes are being committed around it and people are just shrugging their shoulders,” she said. “It certainly isn’t the way we usually do business.” She also added that, to her knowledge, nothing was being done by the government to clear the regulatory haze.
The irony in all this is that three months ago, somebody did start to do something-and it wasn’t the DA, the cops, the county supervisors, or the City Council. It was the club owners themselves. And they’ve got good reason to regulate, for as one anonymous dispensary owner complained, “Right now, in this town, people are looking to exploit the law and take advantage of it. There’s no doubt about it, and no doubt they will ruin it for the thousands of us who are doing things the right way.”
Acting at the behest of medical marijuana lobbying group Americans for Safe Access (ASA), representatives from all but one of the S.B. clubs began meeting on a monthly basis in order to, as ASA organizer Chris Fusco put it, “get to know one another and to try to establish a standard of care for Santa Barbara.” With moratoriums on dispensaries already in place in Carpinteria and Solvang, Fusco said it is “really just a matter of time” until Santa Barbara does the same. But while the Carp and Solvang moratoriums are what Fusco calls “wolves in sheep’s clothing” since those towns have never had dispensaries, he thinks an S.B. moratorium would be temporary and allow the city to establish standards for clubs.
Heading off such a move at the pass, ASA is helping dispensaries to establish uniform ways of labeling medicine, verifying doctor’s notes, and registering patients. “These may seem like really basic things,” said Fusco, “but the reality is no one else is going through and making sure every club is doing them.” The hope is this early intervention will make fringe clubs clean up their acts while simultaneously streamlining the regulatory process when the city and county decide to tackle it.
Fusco enthusiastically explained, “The end result in this, for everybody, is regulations and a higher standard of care.” The club owners seem to be onboard, as one explained last month, “To be one of the people who helped set the regulations and the precedent for Santa Barbara? That would be a great honor.”
In the meantime, it’s business as usual seven days a week for the existing clubs, which have sprouted up everywhere, from Milpas and Haley streets to upper State Street. They run the full spectrum of incarnations: Some feel about one-degree removed from a De la Guerra Plaza drug deal while others provide laminated menus, 30-plus varieties of marijuana, dozens of hashes and hash oils, assorted THC-laced candies, cookies, and ice cream, and knowledgeable staffs who are able to recommend specific strains of cannabis for particular ailments. Some have security, others don’t; some let you smoke on the property, others don’t; and some are run as co-ops, while others seem to be enjoying the economic fruits of a successful business. While there’s absolutely no way to count the county’s medical marijuana patients, most clubs surveyed claim memberships well over 2,000, with some boasting more than 5,000 patients.
Despite these tallies, the county health department’s voluntary medical marijuana identification card program-in place solely to protect patients from the police-only has 348 patients and 49 caregivers enrolled. Attorney Joe Allen chalked up this discrepancy to patients’ overriding fear they’ll be placed on some list and left exposed to future federal prosecution. But Allen, perhaps our county’s foremost legal expert on the matter, wholeheartedly recommends the county card because, as he explained, “It’s all about being upfront and following what law there is. The card will only help.”
Being Up Front
The doors are usually wide open at Hortipharm Caregivers, allowing passersby on the 3500 block of State Street a glimpse of its smart, remodeled interior complete with hardwood floors, a flat-screen TV, and a glass-backed waterfall. The dispensary-Santa Barbara’s third club when it opened on Calle Laureles in 2005-just celebrated the first anniversary of its State Street location. Nestled among restaurants, a coffee shop, and a massage parlor, the building is both anonymous and inviting.
By Paul Wellman
Looking more like trendy coffee shops than the shadowy hives of villainy that opponents make them out to be, dispensaries offer a wide range of cannabis products from muffins and ice cream to dozens of strains of flowers, hash, and THC concentrates.
It’s early afternoon, and three patients are in the waiting room while another four are in the “green room,” inspecting various strains of cannabis. In a back office, flanked by a massive Executive Safe, the club’s owner Josh Braun leaned back in his chair. “Most days when I come to work it feels like heaven,” he explained, squinting through the smoke of a recently exhaled bong hit. “But other days are absolute hell.”
Josh Braun (pictured above far left) is the owner of S.B.’s third such cannabis market, Hortipharm Caregivers.