When Pot Clubs Go Bad 

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

Page 3 of 9

Estes began his cannabis activism by volunteering at the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative. From the beginning, the co-op has been at the cutting edge of the movement; where San Francisco clubs have a looser, anarchic spirit, it's all business at the Oakland Co-op, whose members have pioneered security and medical protocols with a determined air of professionalism. Jeff Jones, the co-op's executive director, doesn't even smoke pot. Growing up in South Dakota, Jones watched his father waste away and die from a terrible illness and vowed to find a way to bring medical marijuana to the terminally ill. Jones first joined the co-op in 1995 and soon found himself making home deliveries of dope to AIDS and cancer patients. If Estes is a creative but befuddled libertine, Jones is rigid and dogmatic. From the start, the two rubbed one another the wrong way.

After passage of Proposition 215, the co-op emerged from the shadows and began distributing pot out in the open. But no one had any idea how to go about it. There were simply no rules; one day medical pot was illegal, the next day it wasn't.

Proposition 215 is one in a long series of brief, poorly conceived initiatives whose implementation has proven to be a giant headache. The "Compassionate Use Act of 1996" offers no guidance on how pot should be distributed; indeed, the initiative is a single page in length and merely encourages the federal and state governments to "implement a plan to provide for the safe and affordable distribution of marijuana to all patients." Six years later, no one in Sacramento has figured out what this means.

No state agency has ever issued binding directives on how to distribute pot, or to whom. Until the California legislature passes a law to govern distribution, neither the attorney general nor the state health department has the legal authority to innovate any such protocols. "Proposition 215 did not address prescriptions," says Hallye Jordan, spokeswoman for Attorney General Bill Lockyer. "The initiative did not authorize or spell out any specific scheme for dispensing marijuana. Nor did it say who is entitled to it, or how much marijuana is required for which ailment. I think everyone recognizes that Proposition 215 was not the best-written initiative. But the voters passed it."

With the state paralyzed, it has fallen to local governments to regulate medical marijuana. But most localities have adopted a strictly laissez-faire approach and done virtually nothing to ensure that the distribution of pot adheres to the spirit of Proposition 215. The portion of the Berkeley municipal code governing medical pot, for example, is so ridiculously lax that it plays right into the city's worst stereotypes, and yet it's as strict as virtually any other Bay Area city. Although the code limits the amount of pot a club can have on hand, there are no provisions limiting how close a pot club can be to a school, or requiring doctors to conduct an actual evaluation of patients, or requiring background checks for pot distributors -- which is standard practice for anyone who wants to run a liquor store. Yet the code does encourage pot clubs to "use their best efforts to determine whether or not cannabis is organically grown."

City Councilmembers Linda Maio and Dona Spring say the city can't even write up a specific-use permit for cannabis clubs, because doing so would violate federal law. The end result is that medical pot is actually less regulated than candy bars, which must at least have their ingredients printed on the wrapper. Anyone can distribute medical pot anywhere, in any fashion they please, and virtually no one is watching them.

Club operators disagree on whether this is good or bad. Jeff Jones wants the government to step in and bring some common sense to pot's distribution. "We thought the government would get involved in distributing medical marijuana as per the state law," he says. "I never though that five or ten years later, we'd still be operating in a vacuum." Others worry that if the state takes a firmer hand, a conservative governor or attorney general might interpret the law so narrowly as to effectively recriminalize medical cannabis.

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