Weed Wars

Dispatches from the California Marijuana Front

May 27, 2010
Patient's injury, panic and relief offer a medicinal narrative

Todd, a 40-year-old Sacramento man, had a series of back injuries during an active youth and young adulthood of playing football and riding dirt bikes.

He wound up with chronic pain.

"When I tried to get up one morning and could not move my legs without excruciating pain...I kind of panicked," he says.

He tried prescription drugs and, ultimately, medical marijuana.

Todd, who didn't want his last name to be used, allowed his story to be told to stoke discussion during Capital Public Radio's program on the medical marijuana issue, "Medical Marijuana: Panacea or Problem?"

The Sacramento Bee's Andy Alfaro produced a video on Todd's experiences as a medical cannabis patient. It can be viewed below.

May 25, 2010
Campaign polls for legalization initiative have dueling results

When it comes gauging voter attitudes on the November ballot initiative to legalize marijuana for recreational use for California, you can pretty much find a poll to your liking.

For those lukewarm or undecided on the initiative, there's last week's Public Policy Institute of California poll. It showed likely voters sharply split on the measure, with 49 percent in favor and 48 percent opposed.

Those opposed would find good news in the April 19 news release from Smith Johnson Research, the private polling firm for Public Safety First, the committee for opponents of legalization.

The Smith Johnson poll showed the initiative losing resoundingly, with 56.3 percent of voters inclined to vote "no" and 36.5 percent in favor.

"Voters clearly view this debate as significantly different than the debate over medical marijuana," concluded the lead pollster, Val Smith. "People tend to intuitively understand that full legalization is going to create problems in the workplace and on the roads."

People who favor the measure will be heartened by the report from EMC Research Inc., the polling firm for the Tax Cannabis 2010 campaign.

In a campaign memo May 19, EMC Research said 51 percent of voters who read the initiative title favored legalization and 40 percent were opposed. It said support increased to 52 percent among voters who read the ballot summary.

The memo by EMC principal Ruth Bernstein said, "Voters understand that the initiative will bring benefits to the state."

Based on her polling questions, Bernstein said 69 percent of voters "agree that the initiative 'will raise needed tax revenue' and 56 percent "believe the initiative 'is a more honest policy than the one we have now.'"

Take your pick.

May 24, 2010
Marijuana 'micro-brewer' says he's a 'neighborhood pharmacist'

Around the time the construction industry took a tumble, John Shiner took one himself. The long-time subdivision builder suffered a severe back injury and couldn't return to the industry he had worked in for 22 years.

But he realized he had a fallback option.

"I was staring at the ceiling, wondering what I was going to do," Shiner said. "I'm only good at a few things and growing marijuana is one of the things I'm good at."

At 15, Shiner surprised his mother "with this strange plant in the garden" and then got her tips on better cultivation. He perfected them for years to come.

At 46, the injured, displaced construction worker officially went into the medical marijuana trade.

He partnered with Sara Sinclair, a former corporate manager. Their modest SaraJane Cooperative Inc. opened on 21st Street in Sacramento's Midtown.

Shiner says the small medical pot outlet is a departure "from the large Wal-mart dispensary" that may feature dozens of marijuana strains from multiple growers.

In this case, Shiner is the only grower. He considers himself medical marijuana's equivalent to a micro-brewer.

"I'm old school," he says. "I make my own mulch. I purify my own water. I make my own nutrients. I keep everything organic."

And so he offers up his indoor-grown "Grape Jelly Crush," a cross between "Grape Ape" and "Purple Kush." He says medical users find it "really, really effective on back pain and chronic pain."

He shows off his indoor "White Widow." He says it's "patients who like to be out in the garden and they don't want their pain to stop their daily activities."

And he points out his outdoor-grown "Grandaddy Purple" product. He calls it "Mandarin" because he planted it next to a mandarin tree. "It's got a nice citrusy taste and smell," he says.

And Shiner? He's found a new niche in his long-standing passion.

"I'm a neighborhood pharmacist," he says. "I know the first names of the people coming through my door."

He adds: "My business is this neighborhood."

For a glimpse of Shiner's current vocation, see the video - produced by Andy Alfaro of The Sacramento Bee - below.

May 21, 2010
It's after midnight for Cannabis Planet debut in Sacramento

For night owls in Sacramento, Cannabis Planet television, is coming to town.

The marijuana-themed program will bring its tips on pot cultivation, cooking and culture to the local airwaves just past midnight tonight - at 12:30 a.m. Saturday. The show, in English, will run on KTNC - the local affiliate for the Spanish-language network Estrella TV.

Cannabis planet producer Brad Lane is buying television time to air the program. He is paying the bills with sponsorships from local marijuana dispensaries, the River City Wellness Collective and the Horizon Non-Profit Collective, MediCann medical marijuana clinics and California hydroponic growing suppliers, Advanced Nutrients and Humboldt Nutrients.

Lane is hoping the Sacramento launch for his network fares better than his last venture in the capital region. The Cannabis Planet-sponsored race car - adorned with a marijuana leaf - was banned just before race time at a NASCAR-sponsor event at the All-American Speedway in Roseville.

Lane is seeking to enter a new version - with an understated medical cross - in a future NASCAR event.

May 20, 2010
Disabled medical users sue over Orange County pot policies

Few communities in California have gone after medical marijuana dispensaries as aggressively as the Orange County city of Lake Forest.

Last September, the Lake Forest filed suit against 35 people either involved in operating pot clubs or leasing space to them.

The suit was by followed November raids by the Orange County Sheriffs Department on two Lake Forest dispensaries, 215 Agenda and Health Collective, and criminal charges including illegal marijuana sales and money laundering.

Now a group of disabled medical marijuana users is suing Lake Forest and another Orange County city -- Costa Mesa -- for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act through attempts to purge their municipalities of dispensaries.

On April 26, U.S. District Judge Andrew Guilford denied a request for a temporary injunction to allow pot outlets to continue operating. The suit was filed by four plaintiffs, including wheel chair-bound medical marijuana users James Armantrout and Marla James.

But attorney Matthew Pappas of Mission Viejo has filed an appeal to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Guilford said in his ruling that federal laws against marijuana indicate "no likelihood of success" in any claim of cities violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by cracking down on dispensaries.

But Pappas argues that the rules have changed since Congress, reversing an earlier ban it imposed, passed legislation in December to allow Washington D.C. to legalize medical marijuana. He argues in legal papers that the action gave federal sanction to medical pot - and thus protections under the disabilities act.

May 19, 2010
Poll: Likely voters sharply split over November pot measure

California voters who are likely to go the polls in November are decidedly divided on the question of legalizing marijuana for recreational use, according to a new poll.

The survey by the Public Policy Institute of California says 49 percent of likely voters favored the November initiative to legalize marijuana for adults over 21 and allow it to be regulated and taxed. Forty-eight percent of voters opposed the measure with three percent undecided.

Among all adults polled, 48 percent favored legalization and 49 percent were opposed.

The poll revealed major differences among different generations and political and ethnic groups on the legal pot issue.

For example, 62 percent of likely Latino voters opposed legalization while 56 percent of whites were in favor.

While 56 percent of adults 18 to 34 favored the initiative, it was supported by only 42 percent of those age 55 or older.

Sixty-two percent of Republicans opposed the initiative. But 56 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of independent voters favored legalization.

But on the question of currently legal medical marijuana use, voters are much more united.

Some 76 percent of poll respondents said they favored legal pot use for medicinal purposes. Twenty-two percent said marijuana should be illegal in all circumstances.

Medical use was supported by 82 percent of Democrats, 80 percent of independents and 68 percent of Republicans.

May 19, 2010
UK newspaper report marvels at California cannabis country

Ed Vullimay of The Observer newspaper in the United Kingdom came to the heart of California cannabis country recently. And after a visit to the Mendocino County medicinal marijuana garden of Jim Hill, he wondered in a lengthy Sunday report: Could Marijuana Save California?

Vullimay, making multiple stops in California's renowned, pot-producing Emerald Triangle, was impressed with the medicinal enterprise of Hill, whom he called "a respectable figure - neither old stoner nor criminal." Hill runs a medical marijuana collective for 1,200 registered patients.

The Observer article, an Our Man in Mendo report in the Queen's English, eloquently observes the California phenomenon and prospects of marijuana tax revenues for the Golden State - or, Vullimay says, the former "Orange State."

Here's an excerpt:

According to the law, the collective and its members "remunerate" Hill - he is not paid commercially. But he makes a tidy living.

If only the same could be said of the Californian economy. It may be the eighth largest in the world, but the state government has issued IOUs and unemployment is at its highest for 70 years. In his final budget in January, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed what he called "draconian" spending cuts aimed at fixing a $19.9bn (£13bn) budget deficit. He has said previously he would welcome a public debate on proposals to legalise and tax marijuana to help plug that hole.

Tax revenues from medical marijuana (amounting to roughly $200m) barely scratch the surface of what might be raised, given that marijuana is now by far the largest cash crop in what used to be known as the Orange State. It is this that has made an unlikely bedfellow of the actor who played the Terminator and those who might feel themselves closer in spirit to Dennis Hopper's character in Easy Rider.

May 18, 2010
Forum stirs discussion on medical cannabis, community issues

As the City of Sacramento looks to cap the number of marijuana dispensaries in town and county zoning officials seek to disallow them, Sacramento's Capital Public Radio and The Sacramento Bee will convene a panel Wednesday night to illuminate the medical, legal and community debate.

Insight host Jeffrey Callison will moderate the 6 p.m. forum that will be broadcast on 90.9 FM in Sacramento, 90.5 FM in Tahoe/Reno, 88.1 FM in Quincy and 91.3 FM in Stockton/Modesto. A web chat will begin at 6 p.m. at www.secondopinions.org.

Panelists include Dr. Barth Wilsey, a clinical professor of anesthesiology and pain medication at the UC Davis Medical Center, Dr. Deborah Malka of the MediCann medical marijuana clinics, Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness and local dispensary operators Sara Sinclair of SaraJane and Sonny Kumar of the El Camino Wellness Center.

The Bee's California Forum section kicked off the discussion Sunday with a review of contrasting research on marijuana. On Monday, readers debated a pointed question: Do you consider marijuana to be medicine or purely a recreational drug? See a link here.

Meanwhile, the Bee's editorial cartoonist Rex Babin stirred the debate with his provocative Sunday cartoon, below.


May 17, 2010
Marijuana used in research lacks potency of dispensary brands

MAJ MEDICAL CANNABIS.JPGDr. Barth Wilsey, a UC Davis clinical researcher, used a supply of government-produced marijuana cigarettes when he conducted an important study showing benefits of cannabis in reducing neuropathic pain.

Wilsey, spotlighted in Sunday's Sacramento Bee California Forum story, Research offers contrasting views of marijuana, conducted clinical trials on 38 patients.

His research revealed that patients smoking marijuana cigarettes with 3.5 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive substance in cannabis, got the same pain relief as those whose smoked pot with 7 percent THC but had reduced cognitive impairment.

Wilsey is now conducting additional research to see if medical pot users can still obtain pain relief at even lower doses.

Yet as they branch out into other studies, marijuana researchers may need to consider that government pot - cultivated for research at the University of Mississippi - is decidedly less potent than what is sold in many California medical marijuana dispensaries.

For example, some of the more popular meds at Harborside Health Center, are triple the potency of what Wilsey used in his study.

Harborside, which tests its product for THC, sells an OG Kush strain that tops out at 24 percent THC with a lower potency level of eight percent. Its Mango OG tops out at 22 percent with a low potency of about 14 percent - well above the highest-potency smoke in the clinical trials.

Wilsey's work was part of nearly a decade of state-funded studies conducted by the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at UC San Diego.

Wilsey said considerable more medical cannabis research is needed - ideally with hundreds of patient subjects, not just a few dozen.

And judging by what is on the shelf at Harborside and elsewhere, future studies may need to consider what is on the market.

Pictured: Marijuana strains at Harborside Medical Center offer more potency than government-produced pot for clinical studies. Michael Allen Jones/mjones@sacbee.com

May 14, 2010
Fresno authorities lose patience with persistent pot club owner

Rick Morse, a Fresno County dispensary operator, certainly revealed his persistence in battling repeated attempts by local authorities to shut him down.

The Fresno Bee reported March 19 that despite five court directives ordering him to close, Morse returned to his Medmar clinic in Fresno's Tower District, determinedly dispensing medical marijuana to customers.

"If they want me, they know where to find me," he told Bee reporter Pablo Lopez.

But authorities' patience apparently ran out today. Lopez reports that Morse was handcuffed in court this morning and ordered to spend 15 days in jail for violating a court order.

To read the latest, click here.

May 13, 2010
Pot video site offers news, entertainment and colorful culture

Want to follow news reports on California's ballot fight over marijuana legalization? Or check out old Reefer Madness style anti-pot commercials? Or get tips from pot cultivators?

When it comes to video pot clips, a website, marijuanavideos.info, is compiling an interesting on-line library that may earn the distinction of the YouTube of weed. Many of the videos, in fact, are amateur productions first posted on YouTube and then re-posted by fans to the marijuana site. Others are reports by professional journalists. Others are simply entertaining, good or bad.

Here's a few recently posted videos to the site. They include a Time.com report on Richard Lee, the co-proponent and major donor for California's ballot initiative to legalize recreational marijuana, a grainy old anti-reefer commercial with a cowboy theme and a musical, jail-smocked warning about obeying legal plant cultivation limits.

Richard Lee

Cowboy stoner warning

'Out of Jail You Should Stay'

May 12, 2010
Ammiano slows action on pot bill to await initiative campaign

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano is putting the brakes on his bill to legalize and tax marijuana in California - at least until the campaign heats up for the November pot legalization initiative.

In an interview, the San Francisco Democrat said his Assembly Public Safety Committee will delay hearings on the bill until the fall.

Ultimately, Ammiano's proposed legislation, Assembly Bill 2254, may well play a key part in debate over the ballot measure.

"We want to see how the legislation can get out in front of the initiative and at the same time be complementary," Ammiano said.

The so-called Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis initiative would legalize recreational marijuana use in California for all adults over 21 and allow state residents to cultivate their own pot in household spaces of up to 25 square feet.

The initiative imposes no statewide tax. Instead it leaves it up to local governments to make decisions on taxing and regulating local marijuana establishments.

But Ammiano's bill would impose a $50 per once state levy on pot made available for sale. It also would license private marijuana cultivators and wholesalers and give the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control authority over a legal retail marijuana industry.

Ammiano said he is open to considering other ideas to generate state revenues and reconcile his bill with the initiative.

"The initiative does call for more of a patchwork than a uniform state policy," Ammiano said. "But there may be a way to try to blend those two."

Ammiano said he has been heartened by the legal marijuana push. He said he thinks the initiative may well lead to action in the Legislature pegged to its potential passage.

"The thing I would like to pitch to the Legislature is that it is looking good for this initiative," Ammiano said. "There are things we can do before it passes...because it seems to be resonating."

Wayne Johnson, political consultant for Public Safety First, the campaign committee opposing the legalization initiative, argued that the measure has "serious flaws in the drafting."

He said Ammiano's decision to wait until the fall for hearings on his bill reflects a lack of resolve in the Legislature to act on marijuana.

"You have to understand that legislators are not the most courageous people by nature," Johnson said. "Even though this is on the ballot, none of them are going to say, 'I think we should weigh in on this.'"

May 11, 2010
High on pot initiative passing? Intrade has investment for you

The Intrade prediction market, an on-line trading network that enables investors to buy and sell shares based on forecasting events, is trying to cash in on curiosity over the outcome of California's November vote on legalizing marijuana for recreational use.

On April 14, the network offered investors a chance to earn $100 if the ballot initiative passes on Nov. 2 or wind up with nothing if it loses. The opening price was $15.

Just after April 20, the celebratory 4/20 anniversary for pot smokers, the share value soared.

By May 9, shares reached $65, meaning investors believed there was a decent chance that Californians will vote "yes."

The price dropped to $60 by May 10. At the Monday close, investors wanting to wager on a "yes" vote needed to pay $65.80 per share. Those wanting out of the pot stakes could dump shares for $60.

Yes on legalizing marijuana in California lagged well behind prospects of President Obama's nominee, Elena Kagan, getting confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court. She was trading at $95.00 on Monday. But wagering in support of the tax and regulate cannabis measure exceeded that of Republicans retaking the House of Representatives in 2010. Investors were trading shares on a GOP comeback at $46.

May 10, 2010
Capital pot club seeks survival with its next-to-nothing location

unityowners.JPGIt isn't often when a new business in the community boasts that it isn't close to anything.

But that is the happy claim of the Unity Non-Profit Collective in Sacramento.

The medical marijuana dispensary, anonymously tucked in the back of an industrial park near Business-80, argues that it is just one of three pot outlets that comply with guidelines under a proposed dispensary ordinance in the capital city.

Founders Don and Ke Johnson say they serve the medicinal needs of a network of 3,000 medical marijuana patients out of a location, off Tribute Road, that isn't anywhere near any "sensitive areas" - schools, churches, parks, youth facilities or substance abuse centers.

With 39-registered marijuana dispensaries in town, and rumors of more setting up, the Sacramento City Council is considering a plan to impose a cap of a dozen pot shops. They would be chosen by a lottery amongst the registered dispensaries.

The Johnsons argue they should survive because their establishment meets city staff goals for regulating the local medical pot industry.

Notably, City Council member Steve Cohn has taken issue with the idea that pot clubs should be left to industrial parks or even less desirable areas for medical marijuana patients. Despite arguments by Council colleagues that pot clubs be scattered roughly equally around town, Cohn says a higher concentration of dispensaries should be allowed in the mid-town area, closest to mass transit.

Don Johnson, 33, is a former general contractor who began using medical marijuana after breaking his back. Ke Johnson is a former real estate agent uses pot for relief from migraines.

They say they are now modestly-compensated marijuana providers and advocates, with Don getting $1,500 monthly and Ke, the manager, $2,500 monthly to run the dispensary.

They started their patients' collective after attending from Oaksterdam University, Oakland's acclaimed pot trades school, and learning the ropes for collectives, dispensaries, marijuana law, cultivation and "cooking to bud management," Don Johnson says.

"I was the valedictorian," he says. "But she (Ke) did all my homework."

Pictured: Don and Ke Johnson handle inventory at the Unity Non-Profit Collective. Peter Hecht/phecht@sacbee.com

May 7, 2010
New estimate says dispensaries may reach $1.3 billion in sales

IMG_0153.JPGCalifornia's medical marijuana dispensaries generate as much as $1.3 billion in sales and $105 million dollars in state sales taxes, according to new -- and dramatically increased -- state sales estimates.

The new calculations by California's Board of Equalization reflect both a burgeoning legal medical pot trade and improvements by the state in calculating the scale of the industry.

"It's based on further research in the last year," said BOE spokesman Anita Gore. "We just have better data."

The BOE earlier this year estimated medical marijuana transactions at only $98 million, with $8 in resulting sales taxes. That figure was actually revised downward from an original estimate of $200 million in medical marijuana sales and $18 million in sales taxes.

The latest BOE estimates say medical marijuana outlets currently generate between $701 million and $1.3 billion in sales, providing California with $58 million to $105 million in annual sales taxes, Gore said.

State guidelines for medical pot outlets say they must operate as non-profit, members-only patient collectives that receive "contributions" or "reimbursements" for costs and services of cultivating, supplying and dispensing medical marijuana.

But the state makes no distinction on what the dispensary transactions are called - it considers them all to be taxable sales under the law. Dispensaries are also required to have state sales permits.

Gore said the BOE is calculating the scale of the medical marijuana market based on reports from numerous agencies with information on dispensaries operating in California communities.

She said the BOE doesn't require the medical pot outlets "to tell what they sell.

"We don't have a special category for medical marijuana dispensaries," Gore said. "They can be listed as various things from...health foods to general merchandise. The range is pretty great. But some people do tell us."

Pictured: Some of the offerings at Sacramento's Unity Non-Profit Collective. Peter Hecht/phecht@sacbee.com

May 5, 2010
Marijuana 'road movie' winds through Mendocino debate

The publicity for "Cash Crop: The Golden State Gone Green" bills the feature-length documentary as "the feel good movie of the year."

Beyond any intended medicinal pun, the latest California pot doc offers a more sobering look at the state's burgeoning marijuana economy.

The film is billed as a "road movie" from the Mexican border to California's North Coast "Emerald Triangle." But it finds its home in the marijuana debate of Mendocino County.

The movies focuses on the location that pot cultivator and advocate Tim Blake calls "the most sustainable place in the country" for "back-to-the-landers" growing weed.

The documentary by producer-director Adam Ross of Sierra Films also reveals the discomfort over the leafy cornerstone of regional commerce. "Is this really what we wanted out of this?" asks one subject in the film. "...A big money economy?"

The new documentary, featured in the Maui Film Festival, Rhode Island International Film Festival and Santa Fe Film Festival, was presented in a special preview in Ukiah April 24.

With permission from the producers, a trailer for the film can be viewed below.

May 4, 2010
Legal pot campaign leader gets reinforcements: his parents

IMG_0074 (2).JPGBob Lee, 80, and his wife Ann, 80, devout Republican Party activists since the 1964 Goldwater campaign, are headed to California this summer to work on a new political cause: the legalization of marijuana for recreational use.

Bob and Ann, of Houston, are the parents of Richard Lee. The Oakland pot entrepreneur, profiled in today's Sacramento Bee, bankrolled the signature drive to qualify the November initiative.

The Lees' view of marijuana changed after their son suffered a spinal cord injury, which left him paralyzed from the waist down. They came to accept his use of marijuana to treat muscle spasms and sleeplessness.

"As we learned more, we became more accepting," Bob Lee said. "We found out that the war on drugs is actually doing more damage than good...We are now very skeptical of the federal government when we read the history of how marijuana got classified as the drug of the devil."

So Ann Lee says they'll be out in California to back a son who "always marched to a different drummer."

"I'm going to come out and help him as a conservative Republican," she said. "What do you think of that? I think it's right."

Pictured: Richard Lee greets fans at recent International Hemp & Cannabis Expo in Daly City. Peter Hecht/phecht@sacbee.com

May 3, 2010
'Shifting positions' on medical pot cited in reduced sentence

One of the most compelling cases pitting California's medical marijuana law vs. federal authority to prosecute medicinal pot unfolded in the coastal town of Morro Bay.

There, Charles Lynch opened a marijuana dispensary called Central Coast Compassionate Caregivers in early 2006. The mayor, City Council members and officials from the local chamber of commerce came out for the ribbon-cutting.

But in 2007, at the behest of the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Department, federal drug agents raided the dispensary. Lynch was arrested on five felony counts, including conspiracy to distribute marijuana and providing marijuana to person under 21.

In 2008, Lynch was convicted on all counts and sentenced to five years in federal prison.

But last week, in a sentencing memo affirming an his earlier decision to cut Lynch's sentence to one year and one day, U.S. District Judge George H. Wu signaled that federal attitudes have changed on medical marijuana. He wrote: "Individuals such as Lynch are caught in the middle of the shifting positions of governmental authority."

Notably, the judge also said he believed that marijuana should be downgraded from its current federal status as a Schedule 1 drug - an illegal substance with no accepted medical use.

While two charges against Lynch stemmed from providing marijuana to a 19-year-old man, the family of another teenage cancer patient testified as character witnesses for the dispensary operator.

Debbie and Steve Beck brought their son Owen, then 17, to the dispensary after a doctor gave the youth a medical pot recommendation to treat nausea from chemotherapy and phantom pain from an amputation.

The case drew wide attention from medical marijuana activists. The story of Lynch and the Beck family was featured in a 10-minute report on Reason.tv that was narrated by actor Drew Carey.

In reducing Lynch's sentence, Judge Wu cited a less antagonistic approach toward state-allowed medical marijuana by the Obama administration and Attorney General Eric Holder than under the Bush administration and former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

He also said Lynch's case "falls outside of the heartland of typical marijuana distribution cases." He noted that the dispensary operator had no criminal record and "the objective of the distribution was...to provide the marijuana for therapeutic reasons to persons with diagnosed medical needs pursuant to California state laws."

The ruling was hailed by Joe Elford, chief counsel for Americans for Safe Access, who had argued for leniency for Lynch.

"Judge Wu's sentencing order...begs the question of why the federal government is still prosecuting medical marijuana cases," Elford said in a statement.

For more on the saga, view the 2008 Reason.tv report below.