In California, annual retail sales of medical marijuana may be as high as $1.3 billion. But to use it, people have to grow it, and deliver it, and the laws governing the substance are anything but clear. What’s more, the feds’ official position is: no marijuana is legal. And they’re cracking down. Writer David Freed takes us on a road trip through the medical marijuana morass as part of the “Medicine on the Front Lines” report in the January-February 2012 issue of Miller-McCune magazine.
We’re riding south out of Northern California’s Humboldt County, pushing 75 miles an hour along the 101 freeway in a tomato-red Toyota Matrix hatchback with a tiny quartz figurine of Guanyin, the Chinese goddess of compassion, glued to the dashboard. Stashed in the trunk, in a cheap plastic gym bag, are two pounds of what many would say is some of the best marijuana in America.
The Toyota’s owner and driver is “Mr. X.” (His wife asked that his real name not be used for fear that federal authorities, who recently began cracking down on the medical cannabis industry, might target him.)
He’s a bespectacled, sandals-wearing 57-year-old college graduate whose day job is inspecting properties for insurance and mortgage brokers. He also heads the Tea House Collective, an Internet-based nonprofit comprising 20 small-scale, environmentally conscious Humboldt County marijuana farmers who proudly grow their pot organically and outdoors, unlike many farmers whose crops are cultivated indoors, under high-intensity lamps that burn 24/7.
Mr. X helped organize the collective in early 2010. His business model was simple: next-day delivery of high-grade, pesticide-free medical marijuana from Humboldt County — widely regarded as the Napa Valley of cannabis — straight to your door.
The collective today serves some 600 individuals in the San Francisco Bay Area and three licensed medical-marijuana dispensaries, or cannabis “clubs,” of which at least 1,000 are estimated to be scattered throughout California.
This particular load of pot is destined for the West Coast’s largest dispensary, the spa-like Harborside Health Center in Oakland, whose 94,000-plus customers presumably share Mr. X’s fervent belief in the healing powers of a weed that, regardless the ongoing arguments over its efficacy and legality, is indisputably California’s biggest cash crop.
By one estimate, the Golden State produces no less than 8.6 million pounds of pot annually — fully one-third the U.S. total — with a street value of $13.8 billion. (Grapes come in a distant second at $3.29 billion.) Annual retail sales of medical marijuana in California may be as high as $1.3 billion, on which the state now collects as much as $105 million in sales tax, according to the Board of Equalization, the state’s revenue authority.
Mr. X, who freely admits to “fooling around” with marijuana since the age of 13 and lights up virtually every evening to help him with chronic insomnia, sees nothing wrong with what he’s doing.
He’s helping people, he says. He’s also following guidelines issued by the California attorney general’s office, which allow members of medical marijuana collectives like his to function as each other’s caregivers and patients.
Until the guidelines are changed — the current attorney general, Kamala D. Harris, is reportedly considering redefining them — Mr. X says he intends to keep on doing what he’s doing, even if it is in a netherworld that, by his own admission, functions amid “conflicting layers of gray.”
He says he’s hardly growing wealthy in the process. Making big bucks, however, isn’t his priority. For him, facilitating the use of marijuana raised without artificial means is one way he can promote a holistic, eco-friendly existence. “Pot, for us, is about the values,” he says. “It’s not about the money.”
Not everyone, of course, would agree with Mr. X’s values when it comes to marijuana, including many members of law enforcement, who, if they knew what was in his trunk, wouldn’t hesitate to slap on the handcuffs. Mr. X professes little fear of the police.
But as we motor south to Oakland, his eyes dart anxiously toward each patrol car that comes into view along the roadside, and he slows down. He’s chancing arrest bringing his goods to market, and he knows it.
Mr. X’s journey on this Sunday will traverse more than 220 miles, five of California’s 58 counties, and a minefield of marijuana laws that are stunningly inconsistent from one jurisdiction to the next.
The resulting confusion is compounded by broadly differing interpretations among individual district attorneys as to what is and isn’t lawful. For example, where he lives in Humboldt County, Mr. X, who carries a card stating that his doctor has recommended he needs marijuana, is legally entitled to possess 3 pounds of processed pot for medicinal purposes.
Directly south of Humboldt, Mendocino County’s limits are based solely on what any doctor says any patient can have. Farther south, in Sonoma County, the limit goes back to 3 pounds.
In Marin County, the next jurisdiction down the road, a patient is allowed no more than 8 ounces. Meanwhile, as if all that were not vexing enough, prosecutors in various counties, including Sonoma, have argued that, while patients are indeed allowed to possess specific amounts of marijuana, anyone who transports any marijuana with intent to distribute it — including couriers like Mr. X, when delivering pot to state-licensed medical dispensaries — is in violation of the law.