When Pot Clubs Go Bad 

Ken Estes just wants to share the miracle of medical marijuana. Everyone else just wants him to go away.

Neighborhood lore has it that before Ken Estes set up his medical-marijuana club, the property used to be a whorehouse. The neighbors wish it still was. Back then, the customers walked in, took care of business, and got out. Bad shit never went down at central Berkeley's local brothel -- certainly nothing like what happened on the afternoon of June 5.

At 2:37 p.m., roughly ninety minutes before closing time, a gray Honda pulled to the curb and two Latino men got out the car and stepped up to the guard. One topped out at 250 pounds and wore a plaid button-down shirt; the other was a skinny kid in a T-shirt. The guard walked back to the door, and shouted for Estes' brother that there were two guys at the door to see Ken. His brother cracked open the door, took a look, and leaned back to yell for Estes. At that point, the guard noticed the two men creeping up to the door. "No no, you can't come in here!" he reportedly shouted. Then he saw the gun.

Mr. Plaid jammed a black pistol into the guard's back, and the T-shirt pulled out a kitchen knife with a four-inch blade. According to the police report, they forced the guard through the door, rushed into the club, and screamed at everyone to lie face down on the floor. Everyone did except for one man, a wheelchair-bound patient who had come to get his legally prescribed dose of reefer and now had a gun in his face. The two men trashed the place and finally found the stash after prying open a locked file cabinet. As terrified neighbors called the cops, the thieves ran out of the club, jumped in the car, and floored it.

It was the third armed robbery at 1672 University Avenue in ten months.

You get into a lot of creepy stuff when you hang out with Ken Estes. You get burglaries, armed robberies, police raids, and felony charges. You also get allegations of cocaine dealing, tax fraud, and spousal abuse.

The thing is, Ken's a really nice guy. With a tanned face defined by a sandy goatee, long blond hair, and a disarming air of candor and vulnerability, he seems the very picture of California easy living. It's only when you notice the wheelchair supporting his shriveled legs, or the limp handshake born of two decades of nerve damage, that you catch a glimpse of the tragedy that has been his companion since 1976. Shortly after a motorcycle accident left Estes paralyzed below his chest, he became a devoted advocate of medical marijuana. He carefully organized his club to offer every possible comfort to the sick or dying.

Berkeley Medical Herbs, which didn't exactly traffic in St.-John's-wort, operated out of a cute little cottage that neighbors call the "hobbit warren." A modest wooden fence fronts the street and a path leads through a mulch lawn to a white security door. Beneath the rich, sloping redwood ceiling, a spacious brick fireplace keeps patients toasty-warm in the winter. Once a week a woman comes in and provides free massages on a table in the corner. And unlike other East Bay pot clubs, most of which stress a clinical pharmacy's atmosphere, patients can sit down and light up right there, beneath rustic paintings of Jimi, Janis, and Jerry. If it weren't for the crime that has plagued his club's operation, Estes might be the patron saint of Berkeley stoners. "We have the best prices and the best medicine." he boasts. "If you know buds, we have the bomb."

But ever since Estes first got involved in the medical-marijuana movement, men with drugs, guns, and evil intent have followed him everywhere he goes. They have robbed him, exploited his generosity, and endangered the lives of everyone around him -- even his three children. But "Compassionate Ken," as his friends call him, doesn't seem to learn. He always picks the wrong friends.

At least that's Ken's side of the story. His estranged lover, Stacey Trainor, told a darker version to the Contra Costa district attorney's office. She alleged that Estes is a former coke dealer who lied to secure his club's lease, that he has a Berkeley doctor in his pocket who will sell pot prescriptions for $215 a pop, and that up to thirty percent of his customers buy his product without any medical notes at all. Police and University Avenue merchants, meanwhile, claim that high-school kids used to line up for a taste outside Estes' club, and that his security guards scared away neighborhood shoppers and even got involved in fights on the street. His fellow cannabis-club operators even tried to drive Estes out of town.

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