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09.16.09

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Phaedra

BUSINESS AS USUAL: Peace in Medicine CFO Carl Kerwick, left, and executive director Robert Jacob at a recent staff meeting.

Cannabis Cannabiz

What happens when marijuana comes out of the closet, works as a medicine and joins the chamber of commerce?

By Daniel Hirsch


Peace in Medicine Healing Center's offices resemble the working space of any similar sized nonprofit organization. Stacks of paperwork sit atop desks nestled into small cubicles, boxes of tax documents fill up shelves, computer monitors hum, a rolled-up yoga mat rests in a corner. However, next to the water cooler are more iconoclastic office-place accoutrements: a gleaming, black device sits next to a small, glass dish of the pale green, fragrant herb that goes by many names.

At Peace in Medicine, it's not pot, it's not weed, it's not dope, it's not ganja. It's medicine.

To many, the Sebastopol center represents the new, exciting face of the evolving medical cannabis movement. Peace in Medicine (PIM) prides itself on its clinical, professional approach to dispensing the drug and providing a range of health services to its patients, including acupuncture, massage, yoga and classes in herbal medication. It has bent over backward to maintain good relations with neighbors and to follow both California law and Sebastopol city ordinances. An active member of the chamber of commerce, the dispensary has contributed funding to the local community center and the Kiwanis Club alike.

However, like the entire movement itself, the cannabis dispensary must perform a delicate dance in obeying the often contradictory and confusing regulations that directly violate federal law. While its guests cannot medicate on the premises, it does allow employees, who also must be patients, according to the law, to use that gleaming, black device next to the water cooler during breaks. (A vaporizer, this device essentially superheats the dried buds so that their active ingredient, THC, boils off into a fine, thin mist.)

Peace in Medicine also straddles two conflicting cultures. While the constantly repeated motto of the clinic is to bring cannabis "out of the shadows and into the light" of the mainstream, it also clings to its drug-centric countercultural roots. Though it proudly participated in Sebastopol's annual Apple Blossom Festival, riding a float alongside those of local vineyards and plumbing companies alike, the dispensary also celebrated the birthday of Jerry Garcia, a man who died of a drug overdose, with 15 percent off all edible cannabis products.

Over the past decade, the cannabis industry has seen tremendous growth, and appears to be on the brink of even more. However, that growth is marked by contradictions, conflict, confusion and rapid change blooming as fast as the cash crop that fuels it all.


Obamajuana

"Dispensaries are on the cutting edge of social movement," journalist and author Martin Lee says. "It's a very dynamic social movement, and it's won."

That social movement and industry has expanded in the past decade, and may be entering a brand-new era of acceptance and profitability.

Since 1996, when California voters approved Proposition 215, which allowed patients with doctor's recommendation to posses and cultivate marijuana, the cannabis industry has steadily and rapidly grown. Nearly 500 clubs, dispensaries and cannabis clinics have popped up around the state while operating in an ambiguous legal status. Each county has different regulations and cities have their own ordinances, all the while marijuana possession remains illegal under federal law.

However, as California faces unprecedented financial duress, the discussion about a more widespread legalization of medicinal marijuana and its benefit to the state's economy has grown increasingly pronounced.

This year, numerous developments have pushed increased legalization forward. State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, proposed a bill that would place a $50 levy on every ounce of marijuana sold in California. A study done by the California State Board of Equalization found that with around 16 million ounces of marijuana consumed a year and 8.6 million pounds grown, if passed the bill could bring $1.4 billion in revenue for the state.

In June, State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, proposed a Senate joint resolution calling for an end to federal raids on California dispensaries. A landslide Oakland city vote in July passed an increased dispensary tax. Estimates suggest that this could bring in $294,000 to the city in its first year. Recently, three different advocacy groups have filed legalization initiatives to potentially appear on the 2010 general election ballot. One has already entered circulation for signatures.

For many in the industry, perhaps the first real turning point came on Nov. 4, 2008. In March of this year, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made a statement, which according to Lee, "would never have happened in the Bush administration." Holder announced the federal government would not prosecute dispensaries operating within state law. Though Obama himself has said he doesn't support legalization, many in the industry see his election as a beacon of things to come.

"Medical cannabis is very young," PIM founder and executive director Robert Jacob says. "They say it passed in 1996, but it's been oppressed until November 2008 when Obama came into office. So when you look at the medical cannabis industry, it's just beginning."


Budding Prospects

Located at Gravenstein Station, the same plaza that houses the Sebastopol Inn and Coffee Catz, PIM's facility reaches a level of respectability one might not expect from an establishment that distributes a substance still categorized as a Schedule 1 drug by the DEA, alongside heroin and mescaline. Newly built, with a large front porch and cream-colored siding, the healing center looks altogether suburban. But already serving over 5,000 patients in just two years of existence, the center is more than ordinary.

In February of 2007, when Jacob heard that the Sebastopol City Council might be on the threshold of passing an ordinance allowing for nonprofit dispensaries to open up shop, he stepped into action. He gathered 18 close friends and began to write a use-permit proposal. When the city ordinance passed a few days after that first meeting, the group launched letter-writing campaigns, raised $180,000 in funds from the local community and made PIM a reality. It opened its doors that October.

Only 32, Jacob speaks with the shrewd confidence of a seasoned businessman and healthcare professional with a penetrating look in his one seeing eye (he is blind in the other due to a severe head trauma from his adolescence). With a winning boyishness, he also has a tendency to gesture unpredictably while speaking of the mission of PIM.

He explains that his friends and patients were "all living in the darkness of their homes. Society had mandated that they live in their caves of West County, because who they are and what they do is bad.

"When you come into Peace in Medicine, you can feel good about your experience," he continues. "Now it's about coming in and having some choice and being treated like a patient and being provided with customer service and an experience that is honorable and respectable."

A broad-smiling and broad-shouldered man in a black PIM polo shirt greets guests on the healing center's plant-festooned front porch. He examines driver's licenses and announces through his headset to other similarly bulky men inside that everything checks out. Jacob insists that these men are not security, but rather concierges, hosts or "community liaisons."

Inside, PIM looks like any medical clinic with a New Age bent—all avocado-green walls and bamboo floors—but with a highly distinctive herbal aroma. A front desk clerk inspects a patient's ID once more and pulls up his file on the computer. A photo of his driver's license, an ailment description, history and a scanned image of the original recommending letter all show up on the screen. Even though a doctor's verbal recommendation is legally enough for acquiring medical cannabis, PIM sticks to a strict protocol of written letters only and confirmation phone calls to the recommending doctor, who can suggest cannabis for patients with anything ranging from AIDS to insomnia.

After a wait, the patient gets buzzed into the adjacent dispensary room by a pair of towering community liaisons. On one side of the small, bright room, a glistening glass display counter showcases jars of marijuana buds, an array of condensed cannabis (called hash and kief) in small plastic cubes, smoking and vaporizing devices, cannabis brownies, cookies, lollipops, tinctures, transdermal creams, oils, butters and cough drops.

On the other side of the room, lush, brilliant green plants rustle gently on shelves across an entire wall. For anyone who has only seen marijuana plants on film, seeing this wall of fragrant, full blooms is a bit like seeing a movie star in the flesh or touching an actual bar of gold. But for the patients and professionals who fill PIM, it's just another day in the clinic—marijuana blandly on display and perfectly normal.

The amount of people for whom this is true is impressive and growing. On a regular afternoon, the dozen or so chairs that line the waiting room are filled with patients. Hundreds of PIM patients also make their livelihood growing and selling plants from home gardens. The dispensary has such high demand that it has recently received the city's stamp of approval to open up another location.


Sebasterdam?

As part of its expansion, PIM just recently became the North Bay campus of Oaksterdam University. Founded in Oakland in 2007, Oaksterdam (a portmanteau of Oakland and Amsterdam) is the first college to teach the horticulture, history, cooking, business and legal issues of cannabis. In August, PIM employees taught Oaksterdam's weekend seminar to a completely full classroom of some 30 students eager to become the next generation of cannabis entrepreneurs and advocates.

Jacob talks of the new Oaksterdam venture with transparent excitement. "For us, it's about empowering our citizens," he says. "It's about who we are already and not denying that, and letting people come into the light and feel good about themselves."

In addition to being a university, Oaksterdam also refers to a specific nine-block section of Oakland populated by cannabis dispensaries, cafes and gift shops, the mascot of which is a skunk on the nod with partially shut eyelids. The North Bay will have to wait and see whether that sluggish skunk and the marijuana tourism trade of Oaksterdam comes to Sebastopol.


Fighting the Feds

Not all dispensaries are created equal. Unlike the careful, image-conscious atmosphere at PIM, whose logo favors a lotus flower over a marijuana leaf and whose PR rep advises against using terms like "weed" and "getting high," the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana hasn't added a new coat of paint to its tiny office space in years and isn't adverse to tacking up glossy pot-porn posters of extreme cannabis close-ups with glistening THC crystals.

If Jacob's Peace in Medicine is the new, fresh face of the cannabis movement, Lynette Shaw's Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana (MAMM) is the slightly aged, veteran one. The Fairfax clinic is the longest standing dispensary in California and the nation.

"When I signed up for this license in 1996, I thought I won't do this pot thing forever. Pretty soon, it will be in Walgreen's and whatnot," Shaw says. "But they're still hassling us about it all."

Shaw worked in the Cannabis Buyers Club, the very first medical marijuana dispensary in San Francisco founded in 1994 by trail-blazing cannabis advocates Denis Peron and Dr. Todd Mikuriya, co-authors of Prop. 215. Throughout the early 1990s, Shaw appeared frequently on cable news speaking of the medical benefits of marijuana.

"I was the straight, white, sound-byte girl," Shaw says. "That nice girl with all the sick people."

Shaw became a campaign manager in the original effort to pass Prop. 215 and headed the Marin County office, a tiny suite in a business plaza in Fairfax. When the police raided Peron's San Francisco dispensary, hundreds of ailing patients came looking to Shaw for help.

"I went and got a pound of pot, and that's how it started," she says of founding her then-illegal club.

When 215 passed, Shaw actually got help from the current Fairfax chief of police in drafting up a use permit to make MAMM legal. Shaw has been able to operate and serve her patients for 13 years without interruption, but that doesn't mean the federal government hasn't tried to stop her.

Unlike PIM, which has had no federal interference in its business, MAMM has been in federal civil litigation for nearly 12 years. Shaw has appeared in federal court 43 times to defend her right to do business under incredulous Clinton and Bush administrations and a repeatedly dismissive Supreme Court.

"I pay $66,000 in legal fees to fight the Feds," Shaw says of her annual outlay. "Hopefully, the Obama administration won't come after us, and we can finally paint the walls of the club."


High Costs

Shaw's struggle demonstrates the difficulty of operating under the historically confusing liminal space of federalism. Though Attorney General Holder did promise an end to federal raids on California dispensaries, President Obama's drug czar Gil Kerlikowske has claimed that marijuana "has no medical benefit."

As recently as this Sept. 11, the DEA raided 14 dispensaries in San Diego and arrested nearly two dozen people alleging that the supposedly medical facilities were actually operated by drug cartels.

For dispensaries and patients, a change in the law would be a very welcome thing. Contradictory laws between counties and towns, arbitrary regulations and the high costs of operating a business illegal in the eyes of the federal government plague dispensary owners.

"When you're a dispensary, you're paying so much, everything costs more," Jacob says. "Our insurance premiums are way high, and we always get dropped and have to get a new one. It's a never-ending cycle."

Both MAMM and PIM have several attorneys and financial advisers with whom they consult about even the smallest minutiae. For example, when filing taxes, PIM can't deduct any payroll time for the actual selling of cannabis. Employees who work behind the dispensary counter have to calculate how much of their day is spent consulting with patients and how much is spent actually handling money.

Law officers, too, frankly admit to frustrations with the current ambiguities of the law.

"I would say that laws are much easier to enforce when they're black-and-white. Leaving them vague only makes them hard to enforce," Sgt. Stuart Baker of the Fairfax Police Department says.

Dispensaries that operate as growing collectives, as both PIM and MAMM do, buy all their cannabis from patients. This can mean that dispensaries have little control over the price of goods and the practice of the actual cannabis cultivation.

"There's no way for us to regulate anything," Jacob says, adding that PIM does send out products for regular mold testing.

Currently, former Sebastopol mayor Craig Litwin has been working on language for a law that would permit the operation of a large-scale nursery in the city. Jacob, with whom Litwin has been in consultation, believes a nursery ordinance could allow for increased transparency, safety and regulation.

"I think other cities are already moving in this direction, it's a logical thing to do," he says. "If we're regulating retail side of cannabis, we should regulate cultivation."

Sebastopol Chief of Police Jeffrey Weaver remains skeptical.

"I have seen armed-marijuana-rip-off after armed-marijuana-rip-off. If they know where marijuana is growing, people will try to rip them off," Weaver says. "As chief of police, I have to object."

Peace in Medicine and local law enforcement have maintained remarkably good relations. Weaver describes the dispensary's security system as "truly awesome." When asked about the police, Jacob declares, "You can quote me saying how wonderful they are." The two men are in frequent email contact. However, their relationship is not without its tensions and difference of opinion.

When asked about an attempted robbery at PIM in May, Jacob bristles a bit, then smiles and declares that media love to point at the one sore point of the dispensary's history. He explains that the May incident was part of a crime spree and that PIM's cameras were the only ones to catch footage of the perpetrators and their vehicle. For Jacob, the worst thing that happened before the alarm system sounded was when the perpetrators threw a planter through a window.

"They got away with nothing. We're the safest place. We're the ones who got the assailants caught, where nobody else got them," Jacob says. "Nothing was taken. We caught the suspects. We should really talk about how safe and wonderful dispensaries are."

Weaver has an altogether bleaker perspective on the event. He describes the shotgun handled by the assailant as a "truly menacing thing," something out of the Terminator.

"I know for certain that if there was a Peace in Medicine staffer there, they would have been held up at gun point or worse," he says. Weaver explains that his officers were at a traffic stop at the other end of town and missed the fleeing perpetrators by just a few minutes, but "if they were not delayed, our officers would have had a shoot-out."

In Shaw's opinion, more openness and increased legalization would only curb violence, not intensify it.

"Eleven thousand people were murdered in Mexico over illegal drugs this year," she charges. "If they had a license to grow marijuana, maybe that wouldn't happen."


Indica-Infighting

In her illustrious career as an advocate and dispensary owner, Shaw has received her fair share of death threats. "Needless to say, I have an alarm on my front law now," she says drily.

When she first acquired her license to dispense cannabis legally, growers operating huge, illegal farms in Mendocino County feared that legalization could bring down the cost of the product and challenge their business, and duly sent all sorts of intimidations Shaw's way. That threat of violence has since ebbed, but within the cannabis community, what their industry's future will look like and who will be included to profit is still hotly debated.

The three cannabis-related ballot initiatives currently working their way through the California Attorney General's office demonstrate the lack of clear consensus on how best to reform and develop existing laws.

The California Legalize, Regulate, and Tax Marijuana Initiative, the first to be released into circulation by the attorney general on Sept. 9, may be the most far-reaching of the three. The initiative, proposed by a group called the California Cannabis Initiative, would repeal all state laws prohibiting marijuana for anyone over 21, and would therefore be taxed and handled similarly to alcohol. Additionally, it would expunge all prior marijuana-related convictions and potentially reduce the prison population drastically. The initiative has less than 150 days to collect 433,971 signatures if it will appear on the ballot in California's 2010 general election.

The other two initiatives still await release into circulation and have somewhat different tactics toward legalization. The Common Sense Act also repeals marijuana laws, gives the legislature a year to pass tax regulations but puts more pressure on the state to work with the federal government to end the national prohibition. Finally, the Regulate, Control and Tax Act, co-authored by Oaksterdam University founder Richard Lee, would also treat the sale, possession and cultivation of marijuana much like alcohol. However, this initiative would leave it up to individual cities and counties to decide if they want to indeed regulate and tax the drug.

Some bloggers have raised concern that the preponderance of cannabis initiatives might divide support and risk failure for any of the three. But for Richard Lee, the more, the merrier. "The more people working on initiatives, the more attention it brings to process, the more cannabis prohibition should be appealed," Lee says.

Even though he hasn't decided on which initiative to support, Jacob hopes that any increased taxation of cannabis will come with some additional benefit to his patients. "Oakland has a 1.8 sales tax, but they also have an office of medical cannabis," he says. "I'm fully in support of a tax because it supports the local community, but I also believe that patients whom you're taxing should get something in return."

Besides disagreement about the specifics of increased legalization, growing acceptance and facility in doing "cannabusiness" has raised some unease among certain growers and dispensary owners over competition.

Chief Weaver of Sebastopol received a surprising phone call after he publicly expressed concern about large-scale nurseries. A man who had converted his garage into a small home nursery was calling the chief to say thanks. If the town approved a large-scale commercial grower, this man and hundreds of growers like him would be out of business.

In Oakland, some dispensaries have opposed granting permits to new cannabis operations, fearing the city's openness might challenge existing businesses financial stability. Besides a rumored boycott of one such new-permit-protesting dispensary, no death threats have been reported.


Is It Medicine?

On Highway 101 in Rohnert Park, a huge billboard looms above the freeway that reads in gigantic yellow and green letters "Medical Marijuana Evaluations." When calling the phone number printed on the billboard, a cheerful, and somewhat forceful, woman's voice answers plainly, "Medical Marijuana." At $95 and in 30 minutes, this particular establishment offers one of the fastest and cheapest evaluations for marijuana recommendations. Its receptionist insists that you book a time soon because they do fill up fast.

Of all facets of the cannabis industry, the facility with which most patients receive recommendations raises the most eyebrows. One of the sticking points for many who feel ambivalent about medical marijuana is that it seems like anyone can get a doctor's recommendation for just about anything.

"My belief is the majority of people who are using medical marijuana are not truly objectively in need of marijuana at all," Chief Weaver says. "They're just using it medically for cover from the law."

Spending an hour in Peace in Medicine, one can observe a whole range of patients seeking cannabis, many of whom would appear to give the police chief's suspicions some credence. In the dispensary, a heavy-set middle-aged man with a cane peers into the glass display cases right alongside two tan, young women in shorts and flip-flops and a whole slew of "able-bodied young men."

This last classification of patients frequently gets thrown up as evidence of the posturing surrounding medical marijuana. In response to arguments like these, Jacob rolls his eyes in exasperation.

"We have one 21-year-old patient whose parents were killed in a car accident and suffers from PTSD. Before he was using medical cannabis, he was on Xanax and Klonopin and Reperitol and about 18 different pharmaceuticals," Jacob says. "He's one of those 'able-bodied young men.'"

Though its medical value remains somewhat contested, the amount of scientific research on cannabis currently underway provides the movement a sturdy fount of potential evidence.

"It's an explosive area of scientific research, every week there about 50 journal articles that come out, " journalist Martin Lee says. He explains that the endocannabinoid system in our brain, which relates to memory, pain and appetite and may respond uniquely to the THC found in marijuana and lead to a wide variety of useful discoveries.

Determining the actual medicinal values and particular applications of cannabis may prove a central role in deciding its ultimate legal status and if it will eventually stock the shelves of drugstores or supermarkets. In its current broad use as an aid to everyone from cancer patients to people with mild insomnia, cannabis does challenge traditional ideas about medicine. However, it does what at its core all medicine should do: it helps people.

Before she owned a cannabis dispensary, Lynette Shaw was on welfare and recovering from severe spousal abuse, including permanent neck injuries from strangulation. Anorexic and wracked with depression, Shaw attempted suicide at the age of 24. She survived and had the luck of meeting medical marijuana's earliest proponents.

"When I had marijuana, I didn't have the terrible nightmares," she says. "When I had regular access, all of a sudden my symptoms abated. I stopped being suicidal and stopped being anorexic."

At PIM, Jacob also sees legal marijuana as a means of reaching out to the disenfranchised and marginalized, because he, too, was once there. At 17, Jacob lived in San Francisco homeless shelters until he got work at a health clinic for street youth. From there, he worked at needle-exchange clinics and centers for gay and lesbian youth. For him, working with cannabis patients connects directly to that early work with those marginalized groups. He still sees people who feel a tremendous amount of shame—patients who live in fear of their neighbors finding out they use cannabis. Fighting some of the residual stigma of marijuana use is central to PIM's mission, which explains much of its carefulness with language and self-image.

"What inspires me is empowering people," Jacob says. "We try to allow people to say, 'I am a medical cannabis patients, I want to be recognized.'"

One such cannabis patient, a frizzy-white-haired woman named Hazel, knows well the empowering nature of the drug. Standing in the waiting room of the MAMM, she proclaimed proudly without being asked, "I'm here because I'm a cancer survivor. All us old broads are here for cancer. This place is fabulous!"

Clutching a small paper bag of shake, Hazel marched out the door into the sunny Marin County afternoon with plans to get real high. She was going to hike up a mountain.


Know the Law—Maybe

In California, possessing 28.5 grams of marijuana or less without a doctor's recommendation is a misdemeanor and could lead to a $100 fine; more could mean a $500 penalty or jail time. For medical marijuana, with a valid doctor's recommendation, every county—and some cities—has different limits for possession and cultivation. However, these are not legally binding and act as minimums or guidelines for immunity from prosecution. For more information and updates on marijuana legal guidelines visit:www.norml.org or www.safeaccessnow.org.

Here's a quick guide to what's (currently) legal with a doctor's medical marijuana recommendation:

Sonoma

Law enforcement follows the Safe Access Guidelines as recommended by the Sonoma Alliance for Medical Marijuana, and ratified by the cities of Santa Rosa and Sebastopol.

Possession: Up to three pounds of dried cannabis or conversion per year.

Cultivation: No more than a hundred square feet of garden canopy, with a maximum yield of 30 plants.

Number of known dispensaries: Five. Guerneville, Santa Rosa and Sebastopol.

Marin

Possession: Six mature plants or 12 immature plants and eight ounces of bud. (A statewide guideline.)

Number of known dispensaries: Seven. Corte Madera, Fairfax, Marin, Novato and Sausalito.

Napa

Possession: Six mature plants or 12 immature plants and eight ounces of bud. (A statewide guideline.)

Number of known dispensaries: One in Napa.

—D.H.


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