Weed Wars

Dispatches from the California Marijuana Front

February 28, 2010
Ammiano fires up legalization and taxation quest again

ha_marijuana4340.JPGThe last time Assemblyman Tom Ammiano seized the stage for taxing and legalizing marijuana in California, he was overwhelmed with law enforcement officials warning of perils for public health and safety. He complained his public safety committee hearing reeked of "Reefer Madness," a reference to the 1936 cult classic on youth bedeviled by weed.

Now Ammiano, whose committee voted 4-3 to pass a bill that immediately died because it was too late to reach the Assembly floor, is at it again. The San Francisco Democrat is pushing to pass a modestly reworked new pot measure, Assembly Bill 2254.

The bill would legalize marijuana use for California adults 21 and over and give the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control authority to tax and regulate pot like booze.

The department would license private marijuana cultivators and wholesalers with application fees of up to $5,000. The bill would impose a $50 per once levy on pot made available for sale, a tax touted as a way to medicate California's fiscal ailments.
Notably, the legislation would also prevent state and local authorities from working with federal agents in prosecuting marijuana use or distribution allowed under the bill.

Don't expect any calm political seas for this one - or a similar ballot initiative in the works for November.

"California has taken the lead in tobacco use reduction for the nation," protests John Redman, executive director of the San Diego-based California Alliance for Drug Free Youth. "So how can the same state then move over to an explosion in marijuana use? There are groups and organizations ready to fight this. They have awoken a sleeping giant."

If anything, Ammiano says, his bill reflects a new awakening in attitudes towards marijuana in the Golden State.

"California can finally have a policy towards marijuana that reflects reality," he said in announcing the bill. "It's time for California to regain control of this issue by taxing and regulating marijuana."

Pictured: Ammiano meets the press after his earlier pot bill clears his committee in January. Hector Amezcua/hamezcua@sacbee.com

February 27, 2010
Pot docs offer contrasts on medical use evaluations

Hempcon_7.jpg Dr. Frank Lucido, a Berkeley family practice physician and a leader in the medical marijuana movement, likely wouldn't have been pleased with last weekend's scene at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

In a Sacramento Bee story about medical marijuana physicians, Lucido complained about "quick-in, quick-out mills that pretty much give out cannabis recommendations to anyone 18 or over that has the money."

There seemed to be few such concerns at the booth for the Nature Medical Center, which operates two L.A.-area pot evaluation clinics.  At the Hemp Con 2010 convention, it greeted hundreds of medical cannabis seekers who handed over $45 for first time recommendations and $25 for renewals.

Medical staff questioned people for about five minutes at a time about general health conditions and whether they believed they could benefit from marijuana use, according to interviews and observations. The Nature Center staff declined comment.

In contrast, Lucido charges $250 for an initial evaluation and $225 for a renewal. He says he pre-screens prospective marijuana patients in a telephone interview, requires medical records and conducts a 45-minute physical examination. He shares a story of examining one man, who sought permission to use medical pot, and discovering that he had a cancerous tumor.

An ardent proponent for marijuana as "a safe and effective medicine" for a wide variety of ailments, Lucido isn't high on clinics that appear to churn out recommendations like printing presses.

But seeking a quickie recommendation at the L.A. convention suited Sylvia Hatfield, 57, of Monrovia, just fine.

"This is great - because I wouldn't dare ask my own physician," Hatfield said.

Pictured: Medicinal seekers line up for evaluations at Hemp Con 2010. Ken Hively/Special to The Sacramento Bee.

February 26, 2010
Sacramento airport traveler's pot stash offers test case

Matthew Zugsberger, an ex-deep sea diver badly injured in an oil platform accident, will step into a Sacramento courtroom Monday with his awkward limp - and stride into the debate over how much weed medical marijuana users can possess.

Zugsberger, now 33, was arrested with more than three pounds of pot at the Sacramento International Airport in December, 2008. He says he was taking it to New Orleans to have a master chef whip it up into pasta dishes and ice cream desserts for his use.

Prosecutors say Zugsberger was illegally transporting marijuana and possessing for sale, offenses that could earn him four years in prison.

Zugsberger has an interesting defense - a Mendocino County physician's recommendation saying he can possess five pounds of pot and 25 plants to treat his pain.

A Sacramento County Sheriff's sergeant testified that Zugsberger presented a pot referral from "a laser hair removal doctor."

His case is closely watched by pot access advocates.

Last month, the California Supreme Court ruled that the state cannot impose limits on the amount of marijuana medical users can grow or possess.

The ruling left open authorities' right to arrest patients who possess more than eight ounces of dried weed and six mature or immature plants. But they can't be convicted purely on the amount of pot.

"I am a test case, absolutely," Zugsberger said.

He has pushed the legal envelope before. Last year, after Zugsberger and a girlfriend pleaded guilty to misdemeanor possession in Washington, a judge agreed to return 10 pounds of weed.

February 26, 2010
A Hollyweed story: portrait of a budding actress

02_01_10_Medical_10.jpgIt used to be that up and coming Hollywood actresses waited tables.

Megan Albertus, 28, bakes pot brownies and chocolate chip cannabis cookies. Her Regular Strength edibles - cooked up with a quarter gram of pot - and her XXX specials - with half a gram - are featured treats at the Green Oasis medical marijuana dispensary in west Los Angeles.

Television viewers may recall Albertus from NBC's reality show Momma's Boys. She lasted though five of six episodes as 32 women battled for the romantic affections of three men, a firefighter, real estate broker and college student.

She has also appeared in numerous television commercials from beer ads to, yes, an anti-drug public service spot.

In between acting gigs, she shows up for work as the baker at the Green Oasis. "I've perfected my art in my kitchen, and I'm honored that it's so popular," she says.

As for waitressing, she's done with that.

"I wouldn't go back to waiting tables," Albertus says. "I find, by and large, the people I serve here" at the dispensary "are much nicer. The jerk ratio is far lower."

Pictured: Megan shows off her fresh-baked wares at the Green Oasis. Ken Hively/special to The Sacramento Bee 

February 26, 2010
Pot programming gets toking on California cable stations

It may not yet compete with The Golf Channel, Food Network or Animal Planet. But Brad Lane thinks he has a hit for pot curious cable television viewers.

Lane is the creator and executive producer of Cannabis Planet, a twice-weekly marijuana-themed program that recently premiered on cable stations in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego.

He said he negotiating with advertisers and media reps to place the show in the Sacramento market.

Lane, 47, earlier made his fortune developing an on-line library and hand-carry products for compact discs and DVDs. He retired for a while to Mammoth Lakes to snowboard, "recreate and medicate."

Now the medical pot user - for attention deficit disorder, he says - is airing a program on "the merits of the cannabis plant" as "food, fuel, fiber and medicine." He says he is close to financially breaking even, thanks to advertising from marijuana dispensaries to nutrient products for growing your own.

"We feature cannabis cooking in every show," he adds. "And our audience is hungry for more."

February 25, 2010
Kingpins gone straight savor business, Olympic dreams

Bruce Perlowin and Ciro Mancuso, two men who lived separate high lives as big time marijuana smugglers decades ago, have moved on.

Perlowin, featured in a Sacramento Bee report last Sunday, has re-branded himself as a business consultant helping medical marijuana industries pay taxes and follow the law.

Mancuso, profiled in a Tahoe Quarterly Magazine piece by Sierra Nevada ski writer Robert Frohlich, is a cheerleader for his dazzling skier daughter, Julia Mancuso, winner of two silver medals at the Vancouver games and a gold in Turin, Italy in 2006.

Perlowin, who lived in a posh hideaway on 106 acres near Ukiah, smuggled hundreds of tons to Northern California in the 1970s and early 80s, earning himself the moniker "The King of Pot" and a nine-year prison stint.

Ciro Mancuso, who lived in a Squaw Valley mansion, smuggled in nearly $100 million worth of dope in the mid and late 1980s and spent 5 1/2 years behind bars.

Perlowin embraces his marijuana past on his website. Yet he says he is no longer involved in drug distribution, legal or otherwise, and hasn't smoked a joint in generation. "The King of Pot doesn't smoke pot," he says. "I'm sorry. I don't have have a medical condition."

Mancuso prefers to leave his past behind. He told Frohlich, a frequent Bee contributor on the Sierra ski industry, of his frustration when reporters chased after him during the Turin games, trying to tie his daughter's Olympic success to his criminal failures.

After her stellar skiing took over, he said, "I was glad everyone was finally just focused on Julia. This was her show."

About Weed Wars

Peter Hecht

From its pot fields to politics, California is the epicenter for America's marijuana discussion. This blog covers news, trends and people of the California marijuana story.

Contact reporter Peter Hecht at phecht@sacbee.com

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