Cannabis Rising

Maybe somewhere high above L.A., on a big, wispy puff of a magic-dragon cloud, Daryl Gates found himself with Jack Herer looking down on his old, literal stomping grounds.

What the heavenly odd couple, who died a day apart in mid-April, might have thought as they mulled over a gathering tribe downtown in the City of Angels is anyone's cosmic guess — even if the former LAPD chief made no apologies for shining his shoes on hippie ass, and the earthy ganja activist's life was dedicated to legalizing the sweet leaf of cannabis.

But Gates and Herer surely would have shaken their heads as they watched the second annual THC Expose unfold at the L.A. Convention Center on April 23-25.

For Gates, the thousands of marijuana lovers who poured into the venue to inhale all things intoxicatedly green must have been a nightmarish trip from the Reefer Madness era, when he first joined the force, in 1949.

For Herer, whose name and visage could be glimpsed everywhere on the convention floor, it would have to have been the finest shotgun hit from Earth to divinity: Cheech & Chong Telegraph Jack.

Let's be clear, for all the jargon about "medicine" and "patients," the pot convention that rolled into L.A. was dedicated more to getting stoned than getting better.

Memo to Philip Morris: The Stoner Nation has arrived.

Naturally, L.A. helped it shine, with aisles upon aisles of vendors hawking all things marijuana. Traditional paraphernalia from Bob Marley's era vied for dollars with vaporizers, pot tees, pot adornments and, of course, nubile pot models.

Clazina Rose, a 22-year-old doe-eyed honey from Orange County, who wore a plastic pot-leaf lei and worked a table for a Long Beach dispensary, gushed like a pageant hopeful that she wanted peace, love and a healthy buzz for the people of Earth. "I hope to be Miss High Times 2011," she said. "I just want to educate everyone. I'm brushing up on my Dutch in case I get to go to Amsterdam."

Martin "Bucky" Fisher, a veteran of the pot wars and national sales manager of Medical Marijuana Inc., effused about keeping sales of the sacrament out of the hands of corporate poachers.

"We want a million people in our network, who are ready to distribute when it becomes legal," Fisher said. "When we can market the product itself, we'd like to keep it among the little guys, who have been doing it for a long time."

For merchants like Denis Buj, some megacorporate competitors may not seem as far-fetched as they might have even five years ago.

Buj is a Canadian whose company has developed Spinner Hydroponics. He declared the L.A. cannabis conference a portent far more powerful than the dispensaries springing up like so many mushrooms. "This THC Expose has blown the doors off this issue," Buj said. Now we're not beating around the bush, so to speak."

And that's what concerns L.A. County Sheriff's Department Senior Narcotics Detective Glenn Walsh. Walsh said the sale of medical marijuana has likely bumped traditional, nonprescription sales upward.

"We look at the abuse triangle: accessibility, acceptability and affordability," Walsh said. "You establish that, and use of marijuana increases."

While hard numbers seemed elusive, both Walsh and the conventioneers said that prices offered by dispensaries are slightly higher than street dope, but as much for experience and environment as for the higher-grade product. But Walsh maintained that this dynamic will evaporate with legalization. "Just as soon as the THC level is regulated like the alcohol content in beer is, the street dealers will offer higher grades," he predicted.

While the acolytes at the convention made a powerful case for final legalization, Walsh offered a full-throated argument against it. Citing the linear trajectory of legislation like Prop. 215 in 1996 and SB420 in 2003 (yes, that's Senate Bill 420), Walsh cited the cynical mass gaming of laws ostensibly passed to offer terminal AIDS and cancer patients some limited legal shelter if they wanted to use pot in their twilight days.

Walsh said some dealers have storefronts throughout L.A. that sell dope to tens of thousands of "patients," and the wholesale supply chain remains shrouded in, at least publicly, smoke. It has been a rapid erosion abetted by cowardice that courses through City Hall, the Kenneth Hahn Building and on, to Sacramento and Washington, D.C., he said. "The politicians are afraid to take a stand," Walsh said.

That might come as a darkly rich 90-point headline to many of the potheads cruising the L.A. Convention Center, who spoke of dispensaries being shut down almost as fast they open, and that the city is prepared to whack out the vast majority of existing dispensaries.

But Walsh insists that a relentless game of semantic gymnastics and a tainted if not blind eye to widespread abuse has brought Los Angeles — and the state — to the precipice.

Oddly, Walsh's ultimate assessment seemed shared by many at the convention. Though they insisted the laws are helping people battle myriad ailments with a long-suppressed remedy, they too seemed to see the convention as a sign that the societal floodgates are creaking. There was a giddiness that these gates are about to break wide open.

"This is about culture, not consumption," Buj said.

Perhaps; Gates and Herer, if they were on that cloud looking down, might at least agree on that.

Mark Cromer can be reached at mrcromer@aol.com.