Back In the Closet 

California medical cannabis patients are increasingly being forced to hide behind closed doors as bans on dispensaries and home cultivation sweep through the East Bay.

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After he got his recommendation for medical pot, Harris' first source was the Fresno black market. Dispensaries have never been tolerated there. "When I moved here, I moved into a house and was renting a room, and another guy had just gotten out of prison. He knew people in the black market. So I started buying it from a Mexican national.

"They could barely speak English, but they were really nice guys and they gave me good deals and some of the stuff they had was at least as good, if not better than what could be found in dispensaries. You could buy cheap, good marijuana that didn't have the taste and flavor and the bouquet, but it would do the job. It was still high in THC and CBD," he added, referring to the two main active molecules in cannabis.

Harris began growing his own two years later in 2007, but stayed in touch with his black-market connections for help when he needed it. First, he started growing in his closet with some clones from a now-defunct dispensary in Tulare. The crop failed, so he got some seeds. He didn't know he was supposed to grow only females, and so the males pollinated the females, ruining the medicinal quality of the bud, but yielding hundreds more seeds. "So I kept the seeds and have been using seed ever since."

Harris moved to a different rental place in Fresno at which the landlady was okay with him growing a small garden, he said. His first outdoor crop was pretty rough, but he got better. In 2008, he grew enough that he didn't need to grow in 2009. In 2010 he grew fourteen, ten-foot-tall plants in the drained pool in the backyard, yielding nine pounds of weed — vastly more than he needed for the year — all at a total cost of $350.

Last year, he messed up his soil and harvested just four plants from a screened enclosure on the side of his rental. But he helped a neighbor with her six-plant garden, so he has enough supplies to last for many more months, he said.

About this time of year, Harris should be prepping his small, fenced-off plot of land for his annual marijuana crop. But this year, he's reluctant. He recently learned that the City of Fresno had passed a total ban on all cultivation — outdoors or inside. Violators will be fined $1,000 per plant. One women is fighting a $30,000 fine for 30 plants.

Harris was one of a dozen people who spoke out against the proposed total ban at a Fresno City Council hearing on March 20. "I think it's an injustice to the people who find comfort and relief from marijuana," he said. "The only effect the bans will have is on the people who are doing it legally. There are a lot of people who don't worry about prosecution and they're going to continue."

If he can't grow his own, he's going to call up his black market contacts and start buying again, he said. "Now I'm going to have to spend $5,000 a year to get my medicine, my marijuana? The fact that they banned it isn't going to make it go away. It forces people to spend money they don't have and give it to people who don't need it.

"I'm giving it to the Mexican mafia, instead of Home Depot and Wal-Mart," he continued, referring to the gardening supplies he typically buys at those stores. "That's $5,000 going south and then multiply that by however many patients that are going to have to start buying it."

Cal NORML estimates that there are about one million medical cannabis patients in the state.

"It's strange: the city and [county] board would place the Mexican mafia above the Americans who want to produce their own medicine," Harris said. "I don't know how they can get away with this but I guess they can."


The stark reality is that local bans are the modern face of what is now called "marijuana legalization." Colorado's Amendment 64, which legalized pot for adult recreational use in that state, also allows towns to ban cannabis stores. The law itself also prohibits outdoor cultivation. Consequently, the majority of cities in Colorado have banned pot stores and all growing is done indoors. Any adult over 21 can grow up to six plants.

Washington's Initiative 502, which legalized marijuana for adult recreational use in that state, also allows towns to ban stores and completely bans home-growing. The legislature has proposed sharply curtailing medical marijuana patients' rights to cultivation there as well.

Both versions of medical marijuana regulations proposed in Sacramento this year also affirm "local control" — which is code for the right to ban, activists say. And several of the legalization proposals floated for the 2014 ballot included the local control provision.

Dry counties for pot, in other words, appear to be here to stay.

Corrections: The original version of this story misstated the year in which the so-called Ogden memo was released. It was 2009 -- not 2008. It was the City of Colusa that banned all medical marijuana cultivation in April -- not Colusa County. And Sacramento County banned outdoor medical pot growing -- but not indoor.

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