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 5 of 9

By the time that Estes went into business for himself, he, Trainor, and their three children had moved to a house in Concord, where he began growing pot to supply his growing army of patients. On September 20, Concord police officer David Savage took a call: Estes' neighbor claimed that she could see a bumper crop of pot plants growing in his backyard. Savage stopped by and peeked over the fence. Later that afternoon, he returned with a search warrant.

Savage's police report indicates that he found pot everywhere. He found roughly fifty plants in a makeshift greenhouse in the backyard. He found an elaborate hydroponic system in the garage; behind sheets of dark plastic, dozens of plants were growing on plastic trays and in children's swimming pools; grow lights wheeled back and forth on a track hanging from the ceiling. He found baggies of weed stuffed in desk drawers and scattered along the floor, and plants hanging in the closets. In the master bedroom, underneath a crib where one of the children slept, Savage found two garbage bags with dried marijuana in them. "None of the growing and dried marijuana was in a secure place," Savage wrote in his report. "Most of the marijuana was accessible to the children in the residence. Estes told [me] he was not concerned with the children having access to the marijuana because 'They know it is for daddy.'" Estes denies leaving bags of dope near his children's cribs.

But Savage didn't know what to do with Estes. Estes had an Oakland co-op card certifying him as a patient, as well as patient records indicating he was a legally valid caregiver. How much dope did Proposition 215 allow him to have? "They got a judge on the phone, and I talked to the judge," Estes says. "I said, 'Please don't make me pull these plants out. These are good strains with medical benefits.'" In the end, the cops confiscated the plants and the growing system, and ratted him out to Child Protective Services. In deference to Proposition 215, they left Estes with three plants and an ounce for his own use. But Estes complains Savage took all the kind buds, and left him just a bag of leafy shit.

Fifteen months later, the cops would be back. By then, Estes had bought some property near Clear Lake, and Trainor had moved up north with the kids, growing more dope in a shed behind the house. Meanwhile, Estes' cousin Tim Crew had moved into the house to help him grow a crop that dwarfed his prior stash. This period marks the beginning of one of Estes' most foolish habits: keeping massive amounts of drugs and money lying around. "People told me, 'Don't put more than a certain amount in the bank, or you could get in trouble,'" he says. "We had a lot of money, and I kept it with me. I'd hide it in my closet, hide it in my suitcase. I just didn't want to put it in a bank." As more and more people got hip to Estes' stash, his cavalier attitude would provoke a spate of armed robberies that left his University Avenue neighbors terrified.

The first robbery happened in Concord on January 1, 2000. Neighbors called the cops and reported that several men had burst out of Estes' house and raced down the street, leaving the door ajar. When Concord officers arrived at the scene, they found that the front door had been forced open. They also found no fewer than 1,780 marijuana plants in various stages of cultivation, even after the break-in. This time, the cops wouldn't be satisfied with confiscating his stash. The DA charged Estes with four felony counts of possession and cultivation of marijuana for sale, and will probably argue that the volume of pot on hand proved that he was an outright dealer, not a medicinal caregiver. His trial is set to begin on August 5.

With the heat coming down in Concord, Estes eyed Berkeley. Taking out a business license and a zoning permit to sell "herbs and other homeopathic remedies," Estes set up shop at 1672 University Avenue. From the very beginning, Berkeley Medical Herbs was characterized by his permissive business style. Michael "Rocky" Grunner showed up at Estes' door just months into his new operation and handed him a bag of quality product. Estes says Grunner told him there was more where that came from, and he was certainly happy to buy it. Grunner began hanging out at the club, and Estes thought everything was working just fine. The massage table was up and running, patients were streaming through the door, the smoke was flowing freely. But over time, a tense, nervous atmosphere infected the club. Finally, Estes claims, a friend came to him and broke the bad news: Grunner was dealing crank out of the back room. Estes says he promptly threw Grunner out of the club.

But the club's neighbors were beginning to worry about the sketchy new element. Machinist Richard Graham is a longtime area resident and has been known to take a hit upon occasion. But he even he draws the line at Estes' way of doing business. A few months after Estes opened the club, Graham dropped off a package mistakenly delivered to the wrong address. When Graham asked the man behind the counter how business was holding up, he offered to set him up with a physician for $200. "I asked them how their operation works, and they told me you just need a note from the doctor, and we have a doctor, and you can get a note for just about anything," Graham says. "Then he told me the prices, the registration fee to get the note, $200 per year. I got what I thought was an aggressive sales pitch. He said their doctor will help me get it. He looked at me and profiled me, said 'You're 51, you've got arthritis, we can help you.'... I just got the impression that these are people in it to sell marijuana as a business. I didn't feel that these were people motivated to help sick people, which I think other people are. It was a decidedly unclinical atmosphere, let's put it that way."

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