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California's Medical Marijuana Morass

In Northern California, where the drug laws can change with the mile markers, a supplier of medical marijuana risks going one toke over the (county) line.
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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.

The Jan-Feb 2012

This article appears in our Jan-Feb 2012 issue under the title "Driving Miss Mary Jane." To see a schedule of when more articles from this issue will appear on, please visit the
Jan-Feb 2012 magazine page.


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.

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By a 56 percent majority, California voters in 1996 approved Proposition 215, known as the Compassionate Use Act, which removed criminal penalties for the “seriously ill” who used, possessed, or grew marijuana — as long as they had a written or verbal recommendation from a doctor. The law was intended to help relieve the pain and other symptoms of those afflicted with “cancer, anorexia, AIDS, chronic pain, spasticity, glaucoma, arthritis, migraine, or any other illness for which marijuana provides relief.” Proposition 215’s imprecise language also gave rise to an ailment that has come to be known as “$200-in-the-wallet-itis.” Virtually anybody can consult with one of hundreds of pro-pot physicians across California, claim an ailment, hand over $200, and be issued an annually renewable card that allows them to possess marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Proposition 215 did not define how much pot a patient was entitled to possess. But in 2003, in an attempt to clarify the scope and application of the proposition, California lawmakers passed Senate Bill 420, which granted certain legal protections to medical-marijuana dispensaries. The bill also limited the amount of pot that patients and their primary caregivers could possess: no more than 8 ounces of dried marijuana and six mature, or 12 immature, marijuana plants. At the same time, state legislators built in more than a little wiggle room by permitting patients to possess as much pot as their doctors recommended. The bill also let individual counties and incorporated communities decide just how much medical marijuana was legal, on condition that those amounts were not less than what was specified in SB 420 (those 8 ounces of dried pot, and so on).

Court cases have since wrestled with whether it’s constitutional to impose any limits on the amount of marijuana a patient can have, leaving open the door to heated debate between authorities and pot advocates alike over what’s lawful.

The medical-marijuana movement has spread to 16 other states and the District of Columbia, creating a morass of conflicting viewpoints as to what is and isn’t allowable. As far as the U.S. government is concerned, none of it is. Forget about using a state-issued medical-marijuana card to escape federal prosecution. Washington’s long-standing zero-tolerance position on marijuana supersedes state law; federal authorities believe that pot holds no medicinal value, and they refuse to recognize a distinction between marijuana used for health purposes and simply to get high. Get caught by federal agents growing so much as a single pot plant for any reason, and you could star in your own version of Midnight Express for up to five years.

In reality, federal authorities concede that they’re far too busy to chase down and lock up individuals who say they smoke marijuana because it eases their pain or who grow it in relatively modest amounts. But that laissez-faire attitude doesn’t apply to those who dispense medicinal pot. The U.S. Justice Department contends that state sanctions intended to regulate the sale of medicinal marijuana have been hijacked in many cases by criminally minded profiteers who’ve basically turned dispensaries into convenience stores that cater to recreational users. Authorities announced in October that they would begin getting tough. Within days, anti-narcotics agents raided Northstone Organics, a small but high-profile medical-marijuana cooperative in Mendocino County, digging up pot plants and confiscating computer records.

“This in not about the sick and the afflicted in many cases,” says Rusty Payne, a spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. “It’s about the almighty dollar.”

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Outside the appropriately named village of Miranda, Mr. X turns down a dirt road and drives a few hundred yards into a gorgeous, sun-dappled grove of towering redwood trees. One of his collective’s farmers is waiting beside an aging Buick Skylark. “Mr. Green,” as he prefers to be known, is 54, a former California Department of Forestry firefighter and retired arborist straight out of central casting: jeans, military-style fatigue jacket, droopy moustache, Ozzy Osbourne shades, and hair protruding from a bushman’s hat like the one worn by Dennis Hopper in that paean to 1960s counterculturism, Easy Rider.

“I grow the best marijuana you’ve ever had in your life,” Mr. Green tells me matter-of-factly.

Mr. X does not disagree. Along with marijuana-laced granola, caramel popcorn, and biscotti, the Tea House Collective offers more than 50 strains of marijuana — “the highest quality natural botanical medicine available,” according to its website. The pot has names like “Bliss” and “Lunacy.” Mr. Green’s “Teddy Bear” and “Queen Crimson” are especially potent, according to Mr. X. “Smooth on the throat and lungs, it’s truly a pleasure to inhale,” says the collective’s online description of the latter.

Mr. Green has arranged to hand over to Mr. X for delivery to the Harborside dispensary in Oakland one pound of “Train Wreck,” another of the marijuana strains he raises on his 2-​acre farm outside Garberville. Because marijuana dispensaries in California and those who supply them are prohibited from profiting, Mr. Green will receive $2,200 for what Mr. X carefully describes as Mr. Green’s “equitable contribution” to the collective. In turn, Mr. X will mark up the price of Mr. Green’s marijuana (he declines to say by how much) to cover the collective’s operating costs. At the dispensary in Oakland, that same pound, sold to individual patients in increments as small as a gram, may fetch $4,000 or more.

As evidence of the quality of his crop, Mr. Green says he smoked some of it the night before and was fast asleep by 8:30. He would’ve brought more than a pound, he explains apologetically, but he worries that he might not be paid if federal authorities make good on their threat to come down hard on prominent dispensaries like Harborside.

Mr. Green says he used to do business with “Jamaicans who brought guns and muscle” to an out-of-the-way rendezvous like this one, but it eventually became too stressful. He likes the idea of supplying marijuana to medical dispensaries, he says, because he knows “it’s not going to some junior high school. It’s going to consenting adults who will use it for medicinal purposes.”

Like Mr. X, Mr. Green insists that growing cannabis the way he does, on a small scale and with “love and compassion,” is not about the money. “It’s about providing people access to good, clean marijuana.”

Yet money isn’t far from Mr. Green’s thoughts, at least on this day. With the economy limping along and his investment portfolio battered, he’s thinking of growing more marijuana, he says, “just to survive.” Whether that pot ends up in a dispensary or on the streets, where the marijuana market is anything but nonprofit, goes unsaid.

Mr. X opens the bag of “Train Wreck.” The buds inside resemble large, dry asparagus tips. He commends Mr. Green on how neatly they’ve been clipped, then leans into the Buick’s trunk and sticks his face in the bag. “It’s so gentle and sweet,” he says approvingly.

“They’re like my children,” Mr. Green says.

Mr. X transfers the pot to the Toyota’s trunk. Already inside his gym bag is a pound of “Sour Pink” marijuana, which Mr. X picked up a few days earlier from the “Pink Lady,” another of the Tea House Collective’s farmers.

He and Mr. Green trade war stories, chuckling over what it was like not so long ago in Humboldt County, when local law enforcement agencies weren’t as cash-strapped as they are today and the air reverberated regularly with the whop-whop-whop of helicopters hunting marijuana gardens hidden in the woods. “A lot of us have PTSD from those old days,” Mr. X says.

Law enforcement may not be as aggressive as it once was in pursuing relative small-timers like them, he and Mr. Green agree, but their labors are hardly without risk. One problem, the two say, is that no one’s exactly sure where the risks lie, because medical-marijuana regulations are so contradictory and confusing from one jurisdiction to the next.

“There’s a great hunger among us to understand the rules,” Mr. X says, “so that we can follow them.”

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

“Why should the cop get to play doctor?” says Oakland lawyer William G. Panzer, who coauthored Proposition 215, has business cards made from hemp, and is regarded as one of California’s preeminent marijuana defense attorneys. “If the doctor thinks cannabis helps you, the amount shouldn’t matter.”

Myriad county supervisors, sheriffs, and chiefs of police would beg to differ. Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman fumes over the county-by-county ambiguities and over the amount of time his small department must devote daily to marijuana. “Enough of this,” he complains. “I have other things I want to do, I need to do, I have to do.”

It’s not like he’s a hippie, Allman is quick to point out. The son of a lumber-mill worker who grew up blue-collar in Humboldt County, he says he might vote today for Richard Nixon if Nixon were still around, only half kidding. But Allman is a pragmatist. His 38 deputies are tasked with safeguarding 3,509 square miles and 87,800 residents. Methamphetamine and domestic abuse in the county are epidemic — crimes, he says, that “are sucking the life out of our society.” Yet $1.5 million — one-third of his department’s annual patrol budget — goes to handling marijuana-related complaints.

Come pot-harvesting time, “Our No. 1 call for service is, ‘My neighbor’s marijuana smell is preventing us from barbecuing,’ or ‘Marijuana smell is affecting my husband’s asthma,’ Allman says. “Look, I have two teenage boys. I don’t support marijuana growth. But there comes a time when an elected sheriff sworn to uphold the law has to say, ‘Guys, we’re wasting too much time on this.’”

California maintains no central registry of patients holding medical-marijuana cards, so no one can say with certainty how many use or grow pot for ostensibly medicinal reasons. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), a Washington-based lobbying group seeking to decriminalize pot, has put the number as high as 3 percent of all California residents — about 1.1 million people.

NORML estimates that the medicinal-cannabis movement has given rise nationwide to no less than 2,300 “canna-businesses,” most of them dispensaries. Demand, according to NORML’s executive director, Allen St. Pierre, often outstrips supply. “The untold part of the story,” says St. Pierre, “is that for most of these dispensaries to actually be viable and have a wide range of consumer choices, they have to largely tap into the so-called black market to get their cannabis. It’s an absolute quandary.”

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North of the city of Cloverdale, the freeway sweeps through the chaparral woodlands that parallel the gently curving Russian River and crosses out of Mendocino County into Sonoma County. Mr. X glances down at his speedometer, lets up a little on the gas, and cracks wise about the anxiety that can keep others in the marijuana trade chewing their nails while navigating this particular stretch of the 101. Pot farmers call it “the Gauntlet.”

On this scenic ribbon of highway in 2010, two couriers working for Northstone Organics, the same Mendocino County cannabis cooperative raided by the feds in October, were arrested twice over two days by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department while making supply runs to clients in the Bay Area — runs not unlike Mr. X’s. Only Mr. X is hauling more pot. The pair has been charged with illegally possessing and transporting marijuana — felonies that could land them in state prison. As this story went to press, their court case was set to resume in late December in Santa Rosa.

The Northstone couriers insisted they were following the rules — at least the rules as defined in Mendocino County, where they live. A sheriff’s sergeant from the county said as much at their preliminary hearing in September, testifying as a subpoenaed defense witness. But Mendocino County regulations, the sergeant acknowledged, hold no sway in Sonoma County, where prosecutors have asserted that the couriers had no legal right to drive through their county with any marijuana.

William Panzer, who’s representing the two men in court, equates the movement to decriminalize pot to the civil rights era, when officials like Alabama Governor George Wallace, who personally opposed public school desegregation, took it upon themselves to block its implementation. “Cannabis will be legal someday,” Panzer says. “These people just don’t want to accept it.”

Some growers contend that the California Highway Patrol remains particularly unbending when enforcing marijuana laws. Cruise down certain freeways during fall harvest season in a cheap rental car splotched with mud or dirt (as cars that drive around marijuana fields often are), and your chances of being pulled over go up exponentially. Your chances of being arrested for having medical marijuana onboard, the growers say, all depend on who stops you.

“CHP operates on [its] own spectrum,” says Kevin Jodrey, who admits to having grown marijuana illegally for nearly 20 years before becoming cultivation director for a city-regulated dispensary in northern Humboldt County’s Arcata. “It’s all arbitrary.”

Lt. Kevin Davis of the CHP’s Enforcement and Planning Division in Sacramento asserts that the agency’s 7,800 officers are trained to respect the legal rights of all properly credentialed medical-marijuana patients or caregivers whom they find to be in possession of pot. Yet he acknowledges that officers are also instructed to take into consideration the district attorney medical-marijuana “thresholds” where they patrol when deciding whether to arrest someone.

CHP records show that statewide, arrests rose from 1,863 in 2001 to 2,745 in 2010 — a 47 percent increase. Over the same period, marijuana-related arrests made by CHP officers working in Northern California nearly tripled, from 219 to 614.

Such numbers are not surprising to many who reside in sparsely populated Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity counties, known collectively as marijuana’s “Emerald Triangle.” By some estimates, no less than half of all adults living in what’s commonly regarded as the triangle’s epicenter, southern Humboldt County, are involved directly or indirectly in the marijuana industry. Only a fraction of the marijuana grown there lands on dispensary shelves. Most ends up on the black market.

“Humboldt is buried in marijuana,” says Jodrey. “It is the fabric of the region.”

To gauge the weave of that fabric, ride a crowded Greyhound bus as I did one recent Saturday night from Santa Rosa, where Peanuts cartoonist Charles M. Schulz drew Snoopy and Charlie Brown, to Garberville, the informal capital of the Emerald Triangle. Virtually everyone I met or overheard on the three-and-a-half-hour ride was going there for marijuana. A young street performer, an illusionist from Georgia, was bent on finding a dealer who would sell to him at wholesale prices, then return to his native state to cash in. A 20-something with a diamond stud in her nose had quit her receptionist gig at a doctor’s office in North Carolina and headed west, lured by tales of pot “manicurists” making $25 an hour, trimming the detritus from newly harvested cannabis buds.

My seatmate, a grandmother and disabled nurse, told me how her ex-husband had gone to state prison for murdering someone who’d tried to muscle in on his marijuana operation. They divorced, she said, only after he’d asked her to smuggle in some pot for him to sell to fellow inmates. “He wasn’t even thinking of the kids,” she said, still incensed years later. “I mean, what if I’d gotten caught?” She was taking the grueling 16-hour bus ride from her home near Redding, she told me, to score a half pound of “medicine” from her nephew, whose marijuana crop encompassed “thousands of acres” outside of town. “All the stars in Hollywood buy from him,” she noted with pride.

Garberville, population 2,400, is surrounded by forested hills and narrow valleys crinkled like wadded paper — a rustic little mountain town with cafés, bars, and realty offices, that looks not unlike hundreds of other small burgs across the western United States. With the exception of the Hemp Connection, a shop on the main drag that offers smoking accoutrements, along with clothing and paper made from marijuana plants, the presence of pot in Garberville, which relies heavily on tourist dollars, is not overt—nor necessarily welcomed. Mr. X says his plans to open a downtown marijuana dispensary fell through recently when he could find no landlord willing to rent him space.

But take a morning stroll around town, and the presence of weed is hard to miss. Young men hang out in parking lots and on side streets, smoking joints openly. The grocery store keeps on hand generous supplies of plastic oven bags meant for baking holiday turkeys, used instead by pot growers to seal in the weed’s pungent odor, minimizing detection when it’s stored or shipped. The local computer shop does a keen business in disposable cellular telephones, which come with prepaid minutes and can be easily ditched whenever a paranoid pot grower fears the feds might be listening in. The cannabis “college” that opened in 2010 just north of town offers classes in just about everything an aspiring ganjapreneuer could ever hope to learn about maximizing crop yields.

Such activities reflect a lifestyle that harms no one, as far as Mr. X is concerned. He says medical marijuana could ultimately legitimize that lifestyle, so he strives to manage his collective in as forthright a manner as California law allows: Patients can’t become members without their medical writs being carefully scrutinized; a copy of their driver’s license is kept on file; and the amount of pot they can order at one time can’t total more than one ounce daily. “We are affecting awareness,” he says, “below the radars of the drug war.”

Should marijuana remain a target of that war? Does pot hold any real medicinal value? Even physicians are conflicted over such questions. Earlier this year the California Medical Association became the nation’s first major medical organization to call for marijuana’s legalization—but not because of the healing powers pot advocates say it provides. That jury is still out, according to the CMA. The association’s concern is that physicians might face criminal liability if they recommend to their patients a substance the federal government has deemed verboten.

“We need to regulate cannabis so that we know what we’re recommending to our patients,” Dr. Paul Phinney, president of the CMA, has said. “Currently, medical and recreational cannabis have no mandatory labeling standards of concentration or purity. First we’ve got to legalize it so that we can properly study and regulate it.”

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With Sonoma County safely in his rearview mirror, Mr. X lets out a small cheer. The chances of being arrested have dropped exponentially. Comparatively, he says, few marijuana couriers are pulled over in ultra-white, ultra-wealthy Marin County. The Toyota’s speedometer pushes up to 80.

We cruise past the hulking fortress that is San Quentin State Prison and over the humpback Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. Across the bay, in the auspicious glow of late afternoon, tendrils of fog unfurl toward San Francisco’s skyline like fingers on a giant’s hand. Mr. X will stay the night with friends in Berkeley. In the morning, he’ll transport the 2 pounds of marijuana in his trunk to a small office where his collective maintains a distribution center of sorts. The office manager will then take it to the Harborside dispensary in nearby Oakland.

Within a week, federal agents will raid the Northstone Organics collective in Mendocino County, scaring the hell out of much of the rest of Northern California’s pot-growing community. Many worry they could be next. One farmer associated with Mr. X’s collective wants to resign and have any record of his membership expunged.

Back home outside Garberville, Mr. X sends an e-mail to his collective’s members hoping to quell their fears. It’s not like the national debate over marijuana has suddenly turned black and white, he tells them. The political landscape remains murky, the issues muddled, and may continue to be “for the next 40 years.”

“In other words, everything will remain normal. This deeply disappoints me,” he writes. “But on the legal front, we have less to fear from normalcy than change.”

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