Oaksterdam: California’s Experiment with Medical Marijuana


Welcome to the Bay Area, where Grape Diesel is on sale and the police call pot shops “good neighbors.” Part Two of a Special Report.

The Harborside Health Center occupies one end of a low stucco building in a small office park overlooking Oakland's Embarcadero Cove. Sailboats sway on slight waves on one side of the street, and on the other side, a steady stream of men and women (black, white, Hispanic; old and young; dapper and down-trodden) step up to the front entrance.

“Is this your first visit?” John, a burly twenty-something in shorts who checks ID at the front door, asks an African American woman in nursing scrubs. He's wearing a baseball cap with the California bear and a pot leaf on it. The woman nods her head.

John hands her ID back with a smile. “Welcome back, ma'am.”

The woman climbs a short staircase and steps through a metal detector – where her ID is checked again, this time by a Filipino man in a Cheech & Chong T-shirt. Inside, Harborside feels like a yoga studio or new-age herbal medicine store. With big windows facing the harbor, the center is flooded with natural light; and the shop smells faintly of marijuana.

As it should. This is one of Oakland's central dispensaries for medical marijuana, legal since 1996, in the state of California. Although Los Angeles has more dispensaries than the Bay Area, the city of Oakland last July became the first place in the U.S. to levy a tax on the drug: for every $1,000 of marijuana sold here and at the three other dispensaries in the city, $18 goes to the city. I visited what marijuana activists wryly call “Oaksterdam” as part of The Crime Report's two-part investigation into the status of the nationwide movement for legalization of the drug.

Kronic Krispies

At Harborside, patients check in at the front counter, then step into a long, open room with five glass cases that display dozens of varieties of marijuana buds, as well as tinctures, pot-infused honey and oils, and other “edibles,” including “Kronic Krispies” and ginger snaps by a company called Butter Brothers. Across from the display cases is a corner with nearly a hundred small potted pot plants. A very pregnant woman works behind the counter, dispensing growing advice along with the clones.

My tour guide, a young woman named Dani Geen, tells me that all 80 employees are “patients.” That's mainly defined by the fact that they have a physician's recommendation for medical marijuana which in California you can obtain from a doctor for dozens of ailments from anxiety to migraines to sinusitis.

Many patients use that recommendation to get a medical marijuana ID card, which is issued by both the state and individual counties and looks a little like a drivers license: typically it displays the patient's name, address and photograph, an expiration date and a seal to make it more difficult to counterfeit. According to Stephen DeAngelo, executive director of Harborside, some patients choose not to get the card because it can cost up to $150, which is why most dispensaries also accept a copy of a doctor's recommendation (which they then verify with the prescribing physician).

Dani tells me she got her medical marijuana card four years ago to obtain relief from fibromyalgia. She rarely uses the word marijuana; instead, it's “medicine.” And patients don't smoke or get high, they “medicate.”

Harborside sees 600 to 800 patients a day, of whom as many as 80 are new ones. According to DeAngelo, the dispensary last year grossed $20 million, $2 million of which went back to the government in sales taxes. The clinic is open seven days a week, between 11am and 8pm. A sister store recently opened 40 miles south in San Jose.

I remark on how airy and inviting the place feels, and Dani smiles, flashing a silver tongue stud: “We're definitely out of the shadows.”

In addition to pot, Harborside offers Reiki, massage, substance abuse counseling and acupuncture. But politics is not forgotten: there's a computer terminal in the waiting area which patients are encouraged to use to write letters to their political representatives supporting medical marijuana, as well as correspond with the movement's “prisoners of war” – those behind bars for marijuana offenses. One hour of such volunteer time earns a free gram of medicine.

DeAngelo says the employees, most of whom are full-time, start at $14 an hour; they also receive health insurance, a 401K plan, and a free gram of medicine for each shift they work. To work at Harborside, you have to be a patient.

After showing me the small library, where books about how to roll a joint, the history of the marijuana movement, and cannabis horticulture can be checked out by patients, Dani takes me to a counter manned by Seth Rogers, a young man with shaggy brown hair, who sports a hemp necklace and tortoise shell eyeglasses.

Seth walks me though the wares in the display case, where each “strain,” which is how the dispensary refers to the different varieties, is carefully marked with prices, item numbers and bar codes. Harborside sells marijuana by the gram and the ounce. Prices vary, but typically an eighth of an ounce costs between $45 and $55, with some as low as $20. On the day I visited, there was a sale on Grape Diesel.

Patients are limited to buying two ounces per week. According to DeAngelo, Harborside sells about eight pounds of medical marijuana each day, and keeps about a week's worth in storage. Security is tight: to get to the back room, you need to pass through a fingerprint identification system.

Oakland's dispensaries consider themselves upstanding members of their city's business community. The pathbreaking municipal decision to levy taxes on medical marijuana sales was the result of lobbying by DeAngelo and other dispensary directors. “We saw that the city was struggling, and looking at closing institutions we care about, like the Children's Hospital,” says DeAngelo. “We thought we could assist.”

Checking for Quality

According to DeAngelo, Harborside gets its marijuana from between 300 and 400 “vendors,” all of whom are patients, which allows them to grow a certain amount of the weed legally. Typically, these vendors bring about one pound per month each to Harborside.

In Oakland, according to the non-profit marijuana advocacy group NORML, the law permits patients to grow 20 plants outdoors and 72 inside. But in late January the California Supreme Court affirmed a district court ruling that such limits were an unconstitutional amendment of the 1996 Compassionate Use Act, so private marijuana growing may soon expand.

DeAngelo concedes that the system is imperfect. Vendors with grow rooms have had house fires and been the victims of armed robbery. But he argues that it is necessary, because federal law levies stiff mandatory minimum sentences on people who are found growing more than 100 plants. Currently, DeAngelo is working with the city of Oakland to develop a larger scale grow operation which Harborside can run on its own.

After the marijuana is brought to Harborside, a sample of it is sent to the Steep Hill Medical Collective, a lab based in Oakland that tests for mold and other imperfections. DeAngelo tells me that the collective is currently trying to develop marijuana strains with more anti-cancer properties, in response to requests from many of their gravely ill patients.

I ask Dani what her parents think of her working with pot for a living. “My dad just left (the center),” she says, laughing. “He's a patient, too. And my mom smoked while she was pregnant with me. So they're cool with it.”

Smoking (excuse me, medicating) and cell phone use are not permitted inside Harborside, and Dani scolds me a bit when mine rings. DeAngelo tells me that, while they are not allowed to medicate in the clinic, employees can come to work medicated. If their state hinders their job performance–which DeAngelo says is rare–they'll be pulled aside and asked to adjust their dose.

After the tour, I sit outside on one of the benches in the parking lot for a few minutes and watch the steady flow of patients exiting–each with their medicine inside a plain white paper bag. One man makes the mistake of placing a joint between his lips and flicking his lighter as he steps outside.

“I'm sorry, sir,” says John, the ID checker. “There's no smoking right here.”

He directs the patient across the parking lot to a wooded median where another patient is sitting on a bench, enjoying the sunny day with his skinny cigarette. There isn't a uniformed cop in sight. But even if there were, it's unlikely he or she would make much fuss. In theory at least, if a patient with pot can is also in possession of a valid medical marijuana ID or doctor's recommendation, he or she shouldn’t be subject to arrest.

I ask John about other medical marijuana dispensaries in the Bay Area. Are they all this…nice? He says that Harborside is high end, and tells me to check out a smaller place in San Francisco called HopeNet.

The 420 Room

HopeNet is a small dispensary located in a railroad-style floor-through on a low-rent block in the city's SOMA district. Steel bars cover the display window and front door. A light-skinned man of indeterminate race greets patients and checks for medical marijuana ID.

I have no such ID, and unlike at Harborside, had no appointment. So the man (who I soon learn is called Silver) is skeptical when I say I'm a reporter and would like to look around. He pulls up a stool and tells me to wait a minute near the front desk in a small room that, like the rest of the place, is swirling with marijuana smoke.

After a few minutes, a middle-aged woman, followed by a German Shepherd, comes out to greet me. The woman is owner Cathy Smith, a former Bangor, Maine policewoman- turned-cannabis activist whom the patrons refer to as “mom.” The dog, Sugar, is part of the security team.

Like Dani and Seth, Cathy refers to pot as “medicine” and her clients as “patients.” But unlike the earnest young people at Harborside, Cathy has a healthy sense of humor about the new lingo.

“We've had to re-educate ourselves,” says Cathy. “We're our own spin doctors.”

Cathy leads me into what she calls “the 420 Room,” where patients are encouraged to medicate. With a giant bud leaf tapestry on one wall and two low couches and a coffee table opposite, the room feels like the basement of that kid in high school whose parents didn't have rules. Just off the 420 room is a tiny atrium with (non-medical) plants, a bench and an open sky light so patients can smoke “outside.”

On one of the couches, a man with deep brown circles beneath his eyes holds a two-foot glass bong on his lap. As Cathy tells me about the events they sponsor through HopeNet–Bingo, movie night, open mike, homeless outreach–the man listens, and chimes in.

“I want you to know,” he says slowly, “that this woman here is probably the kindest person to veterans in the whole city.” The man pulls a long suck of smoke from his bong. Next to him, a younger woman smokes a blunt and watches us silently.

Cathy smiles at the compliment. Others apparently agree. On the wall of the back room where the medication is sold is an award from the National Association of Professional Women, honoring Cathy for her work in the community. Among the civic contributions the association had in mind may be HopeNet's policy of providing free marijuana to about 100 patients in hospice care nearby, including some veterans.

The plastic bins of buds in the back room are neatly marked. As Cathy shows me the microscope used to check for mold, an employee and patient light up. “Whoa, that's some real Sour Diesel,” says the patient, sounding just like stoner-icon Jeff Spicoli, of the movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” “That's better than the Sour Diesel at some other clubs.”

I ask Cathy if there are drawbacks to smoking on the job and she shrugs. “Most everyone here is stoned and everyone is working,” she says. And indeed, the employees, while somewhat glassy eyed, are alert, friendly, and seem to be engaged in their tasks. “I was high when I was working in Maine,” she continues, prompting one male employee to pipe up: “It's better than being all pilled out.”

That was Cathy's motivation as well. She obtained her medical marijuana card 11 years ago to relieve the chronic pain suffered as a result of a major car accident when she was a teenager (she's now 54). “I used to be addicted to Percodan,” she says. “I tried everything, but finally found that marijuana worked best. I know it sounds hokey, but getting my medical prescription was life-changing.”

Though San Francisco technically allows some dispensaries to remain open 24 hours a day, Cathy closes up shop at 7 pm. “I don't want my clients wandering the street here at night,” she says, adding with no apparent irony, “In this neighborhood, there's a lot of drug use.”

Policing Pot

After visiting both dispensaries, I call the San Francisco Police Department and speak with Public Information Officer Boaz Mariles.

“The police culture has changed in terms of understanding that [for some people] it's not just weed, it's medicine,” explains Mariles. “The public has spoken and it's our job to work with the marijuana dispensary clubs to keep them and the community safe.”

Mariles says there has been no spike in thefts or violent crime–or even in DUI arrests–in the areas surrounding the city's 26 dispensaries: “It's just the opposite,” he says. “People are taking ownership. Now they're stakeholders in the community. If we do our job right and they do theirs, crime should go down.”

He adds that dispensary owners and employees have “done their part” by keeping the sidewalks outside their businesses clean, discouraging loitering, and generally acting as friendly neighbors.

That sounds familiar. Rick Holman, Chief of Police in the ski resort of Breckenridge, Colorado, where locals passed a bill last year legalizing pot for adults, told me during a telephone interview that he had seen “very little negative impact” from the law.

“We haven't seen an increase in criminal activity around dispensaries and haven't seen a real impact from decriminalization.” Holman went on: “We don't see people walking around in a stupor.”

But Holman is still a cop. During our conversation, he admitted that he was having a hard time accepting the notion of legalized marijuana. “(But) whether I agree or not, the will of the people of Breckenridge is that private possession is not a municipal crime,” he said.

Still, having been in law enforcement for more than 30 years, he says he “doesn't associate” with people who smoke pot–as far as he knows.

Back in California, voters are now being asked to take an even more dramatic step than tiny Breckenridge by approving The Regulate Control and Tax Cannabis Act, an upcoming referendum that would legalize and tax the drug. Even if it wins passage, Holman's unease illustrates how difficult it may be to duplicate California's laissez-faire attitude about marijuana in the rest of the country.

HopeNet's Cathy Smith says she thinks the movement will have a tough slog nationally. Indeed, in Washington State, a man was killed last week when he tried to protect his pot plants from theft, and a marijuana activist who grows pot at home is under arrest for shooting intruders. And in Canada, often considered more socially progressive than the U.S., the prime minister recently shot down hopes of legalizing the drug.

“I see this as a civil rights fight,” Smith says, comparing the marijuana movement to the gay marriage movement. “But just like Proposition 8, I worry that at the last minute the conservative forces will come out and crush [the cannabis act].”

Harborside's DeAngelo believes that the key to keeping the movement growing is to make sure that regulation, including “reasonable” caps on the number of dispensaries and a rigorous screening process for owners, is built into new laws. He observes there is a vast difference between Oakland's four tightly regulated dispensaries, and the sea of cannabis outlets on “virtually every corner” in Los Angeles.

“There are all sorts of nefarious characters running those places,” says DeAngelo. “Hopefully, the rest of the country can learn from Oakland's example.”

Both Smith and DeAngelo think that, eventually, medical marijuana will be legal and accessible nationwide. Smith estimates that within ten years, two-thirds of the states will have passed laws allowing medical marijuana, which she hopes will spur the federal government to action.

“Sometimes the government lags behind what the people want,” she says. “But they'll come around–it's a domino effect.”

If she's right, that will mean an historic transformation of the country's attitude towards marijuana–and perhaps of some of the underlying concepts of the long (and ineffective) war on drugs.

Julia Dahl is contributing editor of The Crime Report

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