A Toke for the High Court

Illustration by Mr. Fish
Pot users with medicinal needs

went into a frenzy over the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on Monday that federal drug laws trump states’ compassionate-use laws, including California’s Proposition 215. Politicians scrambled to take a position, with one county supervisor calling for a temporary ban on so-called cannabis clubs.

In the bellwether city of West Hollywood, which has championed the cause of medical marijuana, telephone lines to cannabis clubs were busy and voice-mail boxes full; the West Hollywood City Council tabled its discussion of proposed “operating standards” for cannabis clubs to rethink their strategy; and advocates were besieged with media calls. Recent busts by the LAPD of pot clubs run by migrant entrepreneurs from Northern California have put cancer and AIDS patients on edge. Resorting to the “black market” is virtually unthinkable, many say. “We’re all a little stressed out,” said an employee at the Center for Compassionate Healing, on Sunset Boulevard. “Patients keep calling. They need to keep their heads.”

The 6-3 high court decision on Monday upheld Congress’ power to police the nation’s illegal-marijuana market. Conservative justices William Rehnquist, Clarence Thomas and Sandra O’Connor dissented on grounds of preserving states’ rights. The ruling made clear that the medical marijuana battle must be fought in Congress, but also forced local law enforcers to decide when and where to crack down on pot clubs that blur or cross the lines established by the state medical-use law, approved by voters in 1996. According to the DEA, federal drug enforcement does not target the “sick and dying.” No immediate fallout is expected from the ruling. For the estimated 75,000 medical-marijuana users in California, it will remain business as usual, with the conflict between state and federal laws a nagging source of tension.

On Tuesday, in Hollywood, the proprietors of a different type of marijuana dispensary saw an uptick in their business as well. “Billy” and “Johnny,” as they wish to be called, noticed that their pagers were going berserk, shortly after noon, when most of their customers tend to wake up. For them, it was just another day of illicit home delivery of weed. In fact, when they consider all the fuss over medical marijuana, they see hypocrisy in every direction, from the pharmaceutical industry, to politicians, to law enforcers and to the prison system — even cannabis club operators and advocates need to check themselves. Says Billy: “Cannabis clubs have a toehold on the medical-marijuana market, and they want to work it. So if it works for them, I’m fine with that. I work my own angle. I just think the government should take the profit motive out of the whole industry. I challenge Congress to put us all out of business. I’d love it. I could move on to something else . . . like the vaporizer business. Have you ever used one? You need to.”

According to Francie Stefan, a senior planner in the city of West Hollywood, there are at least seven cannabis clubs in West Hollywood. The clubs are tough to keep track of, however, as their addresses change or they go out of business. Sometimes they are run out of business. Like the now-famous Cannabis Resource Center, with its epic 2002 struggle against former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, who threatened to jail its operators after seizing assets and leaving dozens of chronically ill users out in the cold. Or United Medical Caregivers Clinic, run by some folks from Ukiah, which relocated to Wilshire Boulevard earlier this year. LAPD officers raided the clinic on March 15, seized 200 pounds of marijuana and $186,000 in cash and arrested two people, after neighbors complained of loitering and pot use on the street outside the clinic. Or Compassionate Caregivers, a marijuana dispensary on La Brea Avenue run by Oakland operators. On May 6, LAPD officers seized an undisclosed amount of cash and pot. No arrests were made, but the matter is under investigation.

Lieutenant Paul Vernon, of LAPD’s media relations, says that the department respects compassionate-use laws. In the case of Compassionate Caregivers, which is known as the “Yellow House” and actually is in the city of West Hollywood, LAPD officers obtained a search warrant after convincing a judge there was probable cause to suspect criminal activity within city limits that could be traced to the West Hollywood clinic. “There’s been a sense of political correctness surrounding this issue, and advocates paint law enforcement as the bogeyman,” Vernon says. “But there is a potential for abuse of the state’s compassionate-use laws, which get used as a loophole for the street sales of marijuana, which contributes to an increase in crime. Therein lies the challenge, to find the right balance. The law is not clear and is still evolving.”

An employee at the Center for Compassionate Healing concedes that pot clubs need to police themselves. They pop up quickly and attract unwanted attention from law enforcers, says the employee, who declined to be identified by name. Whereas the Sheriff’s Department in West Hollywood has taken a “hands off” approach to pot clubs, the employee says the LAPD “has never been on our side.” The employee says that Don Duncan of the L.A. Patients and Caregivers Group is attempting to organize the cannabis clubs, as a sense of order is needed. “He’s like a nonviolent Don Corleone,” the employee says. Duncan did not return calls for comment. “A lot of people from up north have set up shop in Los Angeles,” the employee continues. “Clubs have sprung up like Starbucks. It’s a different culture up north. We’re not there yet.”

Billy relaxed over a chef’s salad

at a Hollywood delicatessen and marveled at the consternation. His associate Johnny took a chicken parmigiana sandwich to go, as he was busier than usual. “I believe in what I’m doing,” Billy says of his illicit weed-distribution business, which features home delivery or pre-arranged meeting places. “I have a lot of customers who are medical users, but I don’t tap into the whole dispensary thing. I’m independent and I like it that way. The cannabis clubs are targets and they get set up.”

Billy started his business 10 years ago, when he found that scoring weed took several days and usually involved a middleman who tended to skim off the purchase. For the first five years he ran the business himself. Over the years he has had 15 different suppliers, some of whom provide cannabis clubs with pot, and he has had six employees. Right now he has three, who distribute about a pound and a half of weed per week, to about 200 regular customers. They receive calls to a pager number that is passed around by word of mouth, they return the calls, and arrangements are made. He prides himself on his team’s quality and consistency of service. Only once has an employee been arrested. “I paid for the lawyer and the employee did something like 50 days in jail,” he says.

Johnny and Billy don’t seem like shadowy drug figures. They see themselves as customer-service providers. Johnny is a screenwriter, and before rushing off to his deliveries concedes he was nervous when he joined Billy’s crew in 2003. “I thought, ‘What am I getting into?’ But then I realized there are a lot of beautiful people in need. The stigma vanished.”

Billy holds out a copy of the Supreme Court opinion and applauds the Court’s ruling. “I’m glad they put the ball back in Congress’ court,” he says.

He acknowledges the cannabis clubs as competitors, but says that “It’s all good.” He doesn’t begrudge their cause, or their success. “They are in it for the long haul. They’re building a house with bricks and mortar. But there are tens of billions of dollars spent on legal and illegal sales of pot, if you factor in the government’s budget. And the fact is, it’s not a problem to get or use weed. It’s only a problem when you have to talk to the man.”


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