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 8 of 9

"I don't think Ken is a bad guy, but it's no longer appropriate for him to operate in Berkeley," Duncan says. "The consensus of the Alliance is for Ken to leave the city, to either move on or find another career. That conclusion has been some time in coming. We're happy to have him as a friend, but it's in the best interest of the patients that Ken close for real."

Duncan's abandonment has left Estes fairly bitter. "Yeah, they don't want the competition," he says. "They can keep the prices high, and they can control the game. It's business, it's all about business. If you're Starbuck, you want Peet's out of town." Still, Estes has finally agreed to get out of town. He, his brother Randy Moses, and Geshuri have signed a lease at a new club in Oakland, near the corner of 18th Street and Broadway, where he promises to tighten up security. The numerous car dealerships have given in this part of town its historic name, "Auto Row," but it should really be called "Pot Row." Virtually all the pot clubs in Oakland are clustered in this neighborhood, and they're not happy to see Estes join them.

If Estes wants to defy Jones, his new neighbors, the cops, and the entire city of Oakland, there's not much anyone can do about it. Linda Maio was at a loss when it briefly looked like Estes had decided to stay in Berkeley; she ineffectually threatened to circulate a petition and prepare a nuisance complaint. As for, say, an undercover operation to catch Estes selling to customers without a valid doctor's note, she never considered that option for a second, and police won't say whether they did. If this the best local government can do, Estes is in the clear.

But medical marijuana's era of raw capitalism may be coming to an end. State Senator John Vasconcellos has drafted a new bill regulating the industry, and now that it has the support of both the California District Attorneys' Association and the California State Sheriffs' Association, Governor Davis has indicated that he might sign it. The bill would establish a statewide registry of medical-marijuana patients and caregivers, who would receive a card certifying their medical status. Physicians would submit candidates for medical pot to the county Health Department, which would approve or reject applicants based on a review of the accuracy of the medical records. The state Department of Health Services would develop regulations that define how much pot dispensaries can grow and store, bypassing the many nebulous questions surrounding how pot clubs currently get their wholesale product. Although the bill's primary intent is to protect patients facing reactionary and unjust arrests, the bill could have the secondary effect of regulating cultivators. This may explain why Californians for Compassionate Use, the organization that thought up Proposition 215, has joined the Committee on Moral Concerns in opposing the bill.

But get this: the registry system is strictly voluntary. Vasconcellos' bill is more focused on reining in the police, and so it barely dwells on reining in medical-pot cultivators. The new cards offer absolute protection from scary Modoc County sheriffs, but in return both patients and caregivers must operate responsibly. For operators in progressive cities such as Berkeley and Oakland, who already can move in the light of day, there's no incentive to sign onto the deal. And so, through a strange accident of history, marijuana seems likely to remain the least-regulated ingestible substance in California.

Of course, good old-fashioned drug laws may solve the Ken Estes problem for us. Assistant district attorney Phyllis Franks of Contra Costa County is preparing to try Estes on four felonies stemming from the Concord raids, and if convicted, he'll be out of business.

This brings up the final legal question unresolved by Proposition 215: how do prosecutors determine whether someone is a legally sanctioned caregiver, or a drug dealer? The answer is there is no answer. District attorneys around the state have relied on counting pot plants; if you've got too many, you must be a dealer. How many plants is too many? No one knows. While a handful of cities such as Berkeley have capped the amount of pot cannabis clubs can have on hand, prosecutors more typically eyeball the plants and make a simple judgment call. That's what they've done with Estes, but the system is hardly precise.

If Estes is convicted, he will pay a terrible price for this lack of precision; the charges carry a possible prison sentence of three years and eight months. But his complex reputation also could be laundered overnight. When Estes turned himself in, forty demonstrators accompanied him to the station, and his image -- the martyr of medical marijuana, persecuted by vindictive prosecutors -- was flashed across the nightly news throughout the Bay Area.

Stacey Trainor's allegations aside, Ken Estes seems a kind, generous man, ready to take you into his company at a moment's notice. But nothing out there can protect us from his tendency to trust the wrong people, of whom there are still plenty in the shadowy, twilight world of marijuana. Estes admits he's made some mistakes, and vows to improve his operation. "We began something here, and we didn't know where it would go," he says. "I've made mistakes in retrospect, but we tried to work it out. Stacey and all that stuff was a big problem -- I had no problems before that. I believe I know who's behind this, the robberies. All this stuff that's gone on has happened since Stacey went to the police, and the police believed her. They told me that many times women turn on their drug-dealing boyfriends, and this seems like a case of that. I wish I could have hired better people, but I can't say that I would have done anything different. I really didn't foresee the criminal element making its presence like it did. But I can only do so much."

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