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 4 of 9

But everyone agrees that since the government hasn't set up rules, club operators must police themselves. The Oakland Cannabis Buyers Collective was at the forefront of this effort, keeping and verifying patient records, hiring security guards, and establishing a rigorous dual-identification system, in which patients had to pass through multiple checkpoints. "To be a member, they had to turn in a note from a licensed physician that we could verify," Jones says. "Even cancer and AIDS patients had to renew the note every year. They were a little mad about this, but we had to confirm that their medical status hadn't changed, and they still needed our services."

Once Oakland officials were assured that, unlike at San Francisco clubs, patients would never smoke dope at the site, relations between the co-op and the city have generally been cordial. The city council contracted with the co-op to distribute pot to seven thousand patients on its behalf, and the co-op's membership cards became the definitive means of identifying medical pot patients throughout the East Bay. Jones even teaches classes on medical marijuana to recruits at the Oakland police academy. "We've never given them a reason to question what we're doing here," he says, "The local police like us because we give them an alternative to going out on the street. Our group have never done anything that has been deemed illegal, and we've never gotten complaints from anyone -- except the federal government." Berkeley's three clubs went through the same process, experimenting with various security and patient-verification protocols. In the beginning of 2001, the Berkeley Patients Group on San Pablo Avenue, the Cannabis Buyers Cooperative on Shattuck, and the Patients Care Collective on Telegraph formed the Alliance of Berkeley Patients and agreed upon a ten-point platform. This included organizing as a collective or nonprofit, contacting physicians to confirm a patient's medical condition, scrupulously keeping patient records, hiring security guards, and maintaining good relations with their neighbors. "We agreed to police ourselves, so we don't have to have any outside regulators that might not have the patient's best interests in mind," says Berkeley Patients Group member Don Duncan.

There was just one problem: none of these regulations had the force of law behind them. Even the police, hamstrung by a city council cognizant of the overwhelming public support for medical pot, can do virtually nothing to crack down on rogue clubs. If someone wanted to hand out pot like candy, no one could stop him. His neighbors along University Avenue soon figured this out.

Accounts differ as to what Estes did when he first showed up at the Oakland co-op's door in 1995. Some say he taught the co-op's pot cultivation classes; others claim he weighed out the baggies and sampled the wares to categorize their potency. Estes says he did both. But one thing seems clear: he and Jeff Jones didn't get along. "Jeff always thought Ken should cut his hair -- look more appropriate for you guys, the media," says one co-op member who asked not to be named. "Ken was like, 'You know, I don't have to look right for the press. I'm a patient.'" Jones won't say much about what he thought of Estes, but Estes recalls, "Jeff said, 'Look, if you cut your hair, you'll go places around here.' I said, 'C'mon, you're sounding like the people on the streets I've been dealing with for years. You're sounding like the conservative white guy who doesn't like anyone lookin' different from himself.' So yeah, we had a lot of trouble. I told him one time, 'I wanna get out of my chair and beat your ass.'"

Whether the Oakland co-op itself was entirely above-board is a matter of some dispute. According to Trainor's statement to the Contra Costa DA, the co-op paid Estes in pot and unreported cash. "Part of the marijuana he received as payment from the club he would sell to other people, including persons who had no medical prescription for marijuana," her statement reads.

Jones denies paying Estes in under-the-table cash, but refuses to comment on whether he paid Estes with dope. Estes claims he received a paycheck, not cash. But he acknowledges the pot-for-labor arrangement. "I got herb for working," he says. "They gave me herb, that was the trade-off. I worked there till it closed, and then I went out and opened my new shop."

In October 1998, the feds managed to get an injunction prohibiting the Oakland co-op from dispensing marijuana. The co-op fought it all the way to the Supreme Court, where it eventually lost. Jones and his lawyers are preparing a new challenge, but except for a one-month period during which the injunction was lifted, the co-op has not handed out a dime bag since 1998. Seven thousand patients needed another supplier, and Estes jumped in to fill the void.

But he needed customers, so Trainor says Estes called a friend who worked there. This employee gave Estes the names, addresses, and phone numbers of five hundred patients, and Estes soon started drumming up customers. No one at the co-op knew the two had done this; certainly the patients had no idea that their confidential information was being bandied about like just another mailing list. Estes concedes he made no effort to call their doctors and confirm their medical condition -- he just started making deliveries to anyone with a card from the Oakland club.

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