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 7 of 9

It was bad enough when neighbors watched police raid the club and kids line up for weed -- then the robberies began.

On the evening of Friday, October 12, 2001, the club was winding down after a long day when someone knocked on the door. An employee pulled the door open and stared straight down the barrel of a silver handgun. "We opened up the door, same as for everybody: 'Hey, what's up?'" Estes says. "The guys came in. They put everybody on the ground and took everything."

Time was running out for Estes. The kids and the police raids were bad enough, but now men were waving guns around and racing off with drugs. At the time, Estes had no security guards, no iron gate on the door, just a lot of cash and pot. Soon, the other pot-club operators came a-callin'. The robbery put new heat on all of them as City Councilmember Linda Maio started making noises. Don Duncan from the Berkeley Patients Group visited the club and found it pleasant enough, but Estes had clearly failed to implement even basic security procedures. "There weren't a lot of people around, the club was fairly deserted, and that was a security challenge," Duncan says. "And the front gate was a problem."

When Duncan suggested retaining security personnel, Estes responded by hiring a couple of guys he knew from around town. Neighbors and police representatives claim that this just made things worse. The men were not professional guards, and scared people away from the neighborhood by loitering on the sidewalk during business hours. Estes says the neighbors are giving way to their own racist fears. "If you talk to them, they're big, soft, easygoing guys," he says. "But unfortunately they're black. And in this society, you think of black as criminal. So the moment you see black people standing around, looking at your ID, I guess it looks like a crack house. I have black friends, and that seems to be held against me. None of the other clubs seems to be scrutinized as much as me."

Not only did the guards not sit well with the neighbors, they also didn't stop the crime. On the evening of December 13, 2001, as the guards had drifted back into the club and Estes' employees began stacking the chairs, one last patient, a young woman, knocked on the door. As an employee opened the door for her, he glanced down to his left and saw three men crouched low. The woman turned and walked back to the sidewalk and the men rushed through the door. One pulled out an Uzi submachine gun, and the second robbery in two months was under way.

The thieves probably wouldn't have kept coming back if there hadn't been so much to steal. Estes refuses to say how much pot was lost during the first robbery, but he says he kept an average of three pounds of dried marijuana in his store at all times. "Some of it was in ounces, some of it in eighths, prepackaged in a variety of amounts," he says. "Plus we had hash, we had kief, we had oils and other extracts from marijuana. We had baked goods, brownies, carrot cakes, Reese's peanut butter cups that were done like that. We had everything." At $65 an eighth, that meant thugs could make off with about $25,000 with one quick hit, to say nothing of the cash he kept on hand.

With this, the city had finally had enough. City Councilmember Linda Maio convened a neighborhood meeting about the club -- which Estes didn't bother to attend -- and told the rest of Berkeley's cannabis dispensaries to bring their colleague to heel. "I called Don Duncan and his folks and said, you guys have to be part of the solution here," she says. "It's not okay that this happens, and it's not acceptable if this is just a rare thing. Don knows that this is not acceptable -- he understands that this would jeopardize the whole movement if it's allowed to get worse."

Estes' new office manager, Dorrit Geshuri, sat down with City Manager Weldon Rucker and police officials, and other Alliance members, and together they hammered out a series of reforms. On January 2, Geshuri agreed to the following terms: the club would only operate five hours a day; less than a pound of dope would be on the premises; newspaper advertising would stop immediately; a professional security company would be retained; and security cameras would be installed.

The final robbery on June 5 spelled the end for Ken Estes. Despite his promise not to keep more than a pound of pot at the store, neighbors report that during the getaway, the robbers' duffel bag was so heavy that they had to drag it down to the car. As for the security cameras, club officials claimed that they had mysteriously broken down that day, and there was no film of the incident. Estes had used up his last store of good faith, and even the other clubs agreed he had to go.

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