Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Weedy, Wild West

"Wanna buy some weed? Wa-wanna buy some weed?” a shaking, stumbling man wearing a leather jacket and a small cap holds out a small baggie containing less than an 1/8 oz of the green herb to me in a small California Park. “It’s some of the good stuff”, he insists.

Having been informed less than 30 minutes prior by local street vendors that drug pushers had been using my current location, Berkeley’s People’s Park, to push meth sprayed cannabis to unsuspecting citizens, I politely declined.

I had heard of the methods dealers use to get customers hooked on drugs, but the feeling of culture shock remained as the man stumbled away towards another group of youth. In Berkeley, Ca, cannabis use has been all but legalized. Citizens smoking pot on the street is seen as just another one of the locale’s cultural curiosities.

In addition to the shady man in the park, locals mention a local black-market dealer by the name of “Aquarius”. With access to one of California’s many legitimate and legal medicinal marijuana dispensaries, he hangs out with his two dogs on Telegraph Ave, giving anyone who can pay ‘the good stuff’. He is spoken of as a friend among the community, and provides a safe, affordable product to Berkeley residents.

Sitting in a small metal chair on the sidewalk in front of a busy coffeehouse, ‘Sam’ holds a lit marijuana cigarette as one might hold a Camel: publicly and nonchalantly.” It’s just become such a part of the culture and every day life here. Sure you kind of have to look out for the cops if you don’t have a [medicinal marijuana identification] card, but people smoke on the street all the time" she says.

As of June, California’s policy makers had hammered out many of the policies surrounding medicinal cannabis ever since it’s statewide legalization in 1996. But being the “leader in all things counter culture”, as High Times editor Dan Skye says, the state has continually explored how medicinal cannabis might be implemented into public policy.

In some areas, such as Berkeley, the unregulated black market has reached the point that pot has become a part of the community. It can be seen being smoked on the sidewalk, and is smelled everywhere. It also means that nearly anyone can tell you where to get some. In Berkeley, the lack of regulation and enforcement policies has led to a new weedy wild west, where the majority of the non-marijuana card carrying public is on their own to find good, untaxed sources of cannabis.

But for the majority of California, a system of order and control is emerging from the chaos of this new West. In the 14 years since California’s legalization of medicinal cannabis, public opinion has slowly shaped the policies surrounding the state’s initially controversial medicinal marijuana dispensaries. Patients right’s groups have lobbied for the availability of safe, reliable sources of medicinal cannabis, and have won a number of measures easing restrictions on the legal cannabis market.

Those 14 years ago were in 1996 when California passed Proposition 215, or the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, with a 56% majority. The proposition stated chiefly that the state would ensure and protect the right of any California citizen deemed by a doctor to be able to benefit from the use of cannabis, to acquire and medicate their ailments by using medicinal marijuana.

In 2005, the Oakland Ca. city government decided to pass a measure regulating how the medicinal cannabis industry would function in the city. It made cannabis the Oakland Police force’s lowest priority, and stated that the city would work towards creating a tax structure and enforce regulation over medicinal cannabis.

By 2007, medicinal marijuana had been legalized for eleven years. The courts had already defined parts of how California’s growing medicinal marijuana community interacted with the state, but the majority of marijuana’s legal issues remain in the grey. State laws still contradict federal laws. No one knew how the free market cannabis industry would look.

Then Richard Lee, a 33 year old marijuana activist, decided to place an ad in San Francisco’s East Bay Express.

Inspired by a visit to a cannabis college in Amsterdam, Lee had decided to test the water of where the lines around commercial medicinal marijuana had been drawn.
His ad, declaring, “CANNABIS INDUSTRY NOW HIRING”, promoted a trade school whose classes aimed to introduce standards to the fledgling cannabis industry on a commercial level. It taught students how to legally, and legitimately, open a medicinal marijuana dispensary.

After an initial public reaction of 200 phone calls in the first week, 20 students assembled in a small storefront on 15th St in Oakland, CA. Soon, the waiting list for classes grew to three months.

As students began to apply what they had learned, “There were a couple rogue agents that just threw up a pot shop,” says Salwa Imrahim, Executive assistant to Oaksterdam University’s founder Richard Lee. Before the city had time to react to the rogues, “16 more popped up in the area, and the market supported it”.

The city, facing the debt generated by several local renovation projects, decided that there might be a taxable market in the sudden crop of medical cannabis dispensaries. “The city decided to permit [the dispensaries], and that’s how they would control them, without shutting them down entirely.” Four dispensaries established permit to sell medicinal marijuana to patients with a doctor’s recommendation.

By 2009, Oaksterdam University had outgrown its storefront’s walls and had moved to its 30,000 square foot headquarters across from City Hall in Oakland, Ca. Satellite campuses had popped up in Los Angeles, Ann Arbor and California’s North Bay.

This growth continued across California, where several municipalities decided to adopt structure and taxation guidelines for medicinal cannabis. According to, there are currently 563 dispensaries across Northern and Southern California.

By last weekend, June 19-20th, things had grown to the point where the High Times had decided to throw a little industry convention, showcasing the state of the medicinal cannabis industry in California. Modeled after the High Times Cannabis Cup, held annually in Amsterdam, this was to be the first event of its kind anywhere inside the US.

A small space just next to the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, the Terra, had been reserved. Massive stuffed baked potatoes had been prepared. Vendors had lined up at a chance to get a booth at the First Annual, 2010 High Times Medicinal Cannabis Cup.

Editor of the High Times, Dan Skye, remarks on the significance of the event with “The industry has advanced to the point where new industries are cropping up all the time. You see this all the time when something reaches its tipping point. All these industries come forward to serve both the consumer and the cultivator. It’s evolving”.

It’s evolving all right.

On the entrance floor, new types of smoking devices, LED grow lamps and entire prefabricated hydroponic grow boxes sit with vendors’ smiles standing idly by for anyone who happens to make eye contact. The occasional cannabis plant stands defiantly tall and healthy among the tables and wares.

Continuing down the stairs into the second part of the convention, anyone in attendance is greeted to a smell familiar to most of those there: somebody's smoking some pot.

If anyone were unlucky enough to arrive on this second section any time between 3-4pm of the first day, they would then enter the mass of people jammed shoulder-to-shoulder, trying to get past the many displays of medicinal cannabis, and a game show booth where free cannabis is given away every hour. The mass of people was there for the third portion of the convention: the Prop 215 area.

In front of the entrance to this special section, a sign sits: “CASH ONLY. Medical Marijuana Recommendations” Anyone who had paid the $35 entrance fee could pay for an on-site doctors consultation. The doctor would provide either a one-year recommendation or, he believed a more detailed medical history was required, would give a 30-day temporary recommendation for the price of $99 cash to any US citizen, regardless of the state on their drivers license.

Those who are given a recommendation are then also given a green wristband, and directed towards a door leading to an adjacent, open air parking lot in the inner city. A doorman checks their wrist band, and they are allowed to freely roam about the Prop 215 section.

Having grown up in the Cincinnati where marijuana still remains in a state of prohibition, I immediately noticed that something was different about the Prop 215 section. The variety of various pipes, bongs, bowls, balloons, vaporizers, joints and blunts was as varied as the people smoking them.

Massive, 12 foot balloons grow from one end of the lot, full of THC laden vapor from a line of cone shaped machines constantly provide samples to anyone who asks.

Innovative new smoking devices are passed among complete strangers. Even on a windy day, anyone in the parking lot has at least a contact high from simply being outside.

A paper tube the size of a small telescope, a medicinal megablunt, begins to circulate around the crowd for over an hour, leaving a cloud of smoke in its wake.

The San Francisco Fire Department stands by to deal with those who collapse in the afternoon sun, and responded to five medical emergencies during the event. Sporadically, a stretcher can be seen working its way through the mass of people, an EMT with an oxygen mask close behind. Coughing is heard from every direction.

And money is everywhere.

Booths line up along either side of the lot and sell medicinal marijuana to any patient with a green wristband. $20 and $50 bills are constantly in exchange between vendors and attendees. Every patient is smoking, and every patient is smoking cannabis taxed by the state of California.

“This is huge state income tax here” Skye remarks, “You have all kinds of taxes here. As far as I know California is broke, New York is on the verge, isn’t it time we start looking at something that will allow states to balance their budgets? ”.

Many of the movement’s earliest members were present, speaking to the public about issues such as patient’s rights, responsible use, and government responsibility. Legal experts also gave advice to anyone with a question.

It has come to the point that in November 2010, California will have near complete legalization on their state ballot.

If the measure passes, anyone in the state of California “will be allowed to carry up to an ounce of cannabis, and be allowed to cultivate up to a 5x5 foot crop for personal use” says Imrahim. The measure would also leave the decision of whether or not to permit dispensaries in a given area up to the Local County or municipality governments. According to a recent statewide Field Poll, a majority of 56 percent of California’s citizenry support legalizing and taxing cannabis to generate public funds.

In the past 14 years, cannabis laws in the states have transformed from total prohibition to allowing a fledgling industry to take root in the shores of the San Francisco Bay.

Thousands of medicinal marijuana patients in the state of California stand on the verge of complete freedom to medicate freely and grow their own medication.

California’s tax regulator, the Board of Equalization, estimates that there is a $1.4 billion unregulated black market for cannabis in the state. Tourism and spin off industries would be expected to generate $12-18 billion yearly for the state, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a California based pro-legalization lobby group.

California stands capable of hosting the only potentially multi-billion dollar cannabis tourism industry in the US, where anyone over the age of 21 can whip out a bowl in Golden Gate park to smoke a bowl of Vortex or Cali Gold, this year’s winners in the Sativa and Indica categories.

State’s suffering from budget deficits will take notice.

Millions of bloodshot eyes stand fixed on the upcoming election.


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1 comment:

Marisa! said...

Oh. Freaking. Jeez.
I want to live in California now. That's AWESOME!! I read this article all the way through, it was freaking mind-blowing. I couldn't help reading sections to my boyfriend even though he had told me countless times to shut up because he's studying, haha. I'm pumped. Either these laws come over to the east or I'm packing my bags!!