When Pot Clubs Go Bad 

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

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Whether Estes is a character out of The French Connection or one out of The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight, he couldn't exist without the peculiar politics of Proposition 215, which decriminalized medical marijuana in California. In the six years since its passage, mayors, district attorneys, and state officials have been so focused on protecting patients from federal prosecution that they've neglected to implement any sort of regulations about how pot should be distributed. No state or local agency or mainstream medical group has offered any comprehensive guidelines on who should hand out pot in what manner. As a result, medical pot is not just legal, but superlegal, perhaps California's least-regulated ingestible substance. And yet marijuana remains a powerful intoxicant with a vast underground market, one whose dealers inhabit a shadowy criminal world populated by dangerous men.

In the absence of official regulation, it has fallen to pot-club operators themselves to craft some sort of system. Over the last six years, groups like the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative and the Alliance of Berkeley Patients have, through a series of trials and sometimes embarrassing errors, arrived at a protocol for verifying medical ailments, providing security from criminals, and operating safely in quiet residential and commercial neighborhoods. But however sensible their rules may be, they have no means of forcing club operators to abide by them. All they have is a gentlemen's agreement.

Ken Estes broke that agreement, whether by design or neglect. And no one may have the legal power to make him stop.

Estes is that rare breed of Bay Area native who spent his teenage years here in the '70s and didn't smoke pot. Born in Martinez, he moved to Concord and became a star athlete at Ygnacio Valley High. He excelled at soccer and was offered a scholarship to Santa Clara University, but that all changed one day in 1976, a month after he graduated from high school. Estes was riding his motorcycle back from a Walnut Creek McDonald's, where he worked as a manager, when a car swerved into his lane and hit him head on. Estes flew over the car and broke his neck. The damage was so extensive that for the next two years, he couldn't even move his arms. He struggled through physical therapy hoping to regain just enough mobility to kill himself.

Estes was wracked with chronic pain, living in a rehab center and dependent on others to bathe and clothe him. The morphine and the pills didn't help, and he began to waste away. "I probably got down to a hundred pounds, and I'm six feet," he says. "I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep, the physical pain was horrible, a nightmare. But about six or eight months into it, a group of Vietnam vets I was in rehab with were smoking marijuana. They said, 'Look, man, we know you're not eating or sleeping, why don't you come over here with us?' I said no, 'cause I was still thinking about keeping my body clean. But they said, 'Man, they're popping pills in you and morphine. This is a lot less than that.' So I said, 'Alright, lemme smoke.' That night, I slept all night. When I woke up, I ate. They brought the doctors in, they said, 'Lookit, he's eating!' My doctor wrote it on the chart, he wrote that this marijuana is doing what you want the pills to do."

After that first toke, Estes put his life back together. He regained limited use of his arms, enrolled in junior college, and by the early '80s was offered another scholarship, this time to UC Santa Cruz. Estes decided instead to open a string of tanning, hair, and nail salons in Concord and Davis. He met his future girlfriend Stacey Trainor while she was working at a mini mart next to one of his salons. "I kept coming over there, and she would always have the banana drink ready for me, get the burrito ready," he says. Within a month of their first date, Trainor left her husband and moved in with Estes. Together they would raise three children.

But something always bothered Estes. Before he began growing his own, he typically took his business to Haight Street or Telegraph Avenue. It was a dangerous pastime; just because he wanted to relieve his discomfort, he was mugged three times and occasionally suffered the indignity of being dumped out of his chair. In the '80s, as AIDS swept through the country, Estes began clipping press accounts of "Brownie Mary," the elderly woman who used to walk the halls of San Francisco General Hospital, handing out marijuana-laced treats to the terminally ill. Slowly, he began to think that this wasn't just a drug, but a cause. In 1992, he signed over his share of the salons to his business partner and started distributing pot, going to demonstrations, and working to decriminalize medical cannabis. "Everyone thought I was crazy, but I said I wanted to pursue this," he recalls, "I'm tired of being looked at as a doper, as a pothead, as somebody less than somebody else because I used marijuana."

Yet as Estes became a fixture in the medical cannabis scene, his life became increasingly chaotic and dangerous. At the very time that Proposition 215 liberated thousands of medical-marijuana smokers from prosecution, Estes began a long, almost farcical slide into crime. Even scoring on street corners didn't compare to what was to come. "No guns in the face at that point," he says of his early years. "That came later, with the medical-marijuana movement."

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