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Medical-marijuana delivery services complicate legal picture in California

August 28, 2010

Map outline of California with a marijuana leaf.
Image via Wikipedia
Fri Aug 27, 6:34 pm ET


From his apartment building in San Francisco’s bustling Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood, Kevin Reed, owner of The Green Cross, goes about the daily business of running a medical-marijuana delivery service. Reed, an Alabama native with a warm Southern accent, oversees the baking of pot brownies and cookies, prepares bags for delivery, and, beginning at 8 a.m., takes phone orders from registered members of his collective. According to Reed, his enterprise isn’t so different from any other operation. “It really is just like running a pizza service.”

The emergence of door-to-door pot delivery services is at least one unintended consequence of the cat-and-mouse game between law enforcement and suppliers that’s been going on in California in recent years, in the wake of a boom in the industry — particularly since 2009, when the Obama administration announced a shift in federal policy, saying it would no longer target operators or customers of medical marijuana dispensaries who abide by state laws.

As officials have tried to get a handle on the proliferation with stricter regulations and forced closures, many dispensaries have found a way to remain in operation by replacing their traditional storefront with a courier service. Uniting under the slogan “We Deliver,” hundreds of mobile dispensaries now advertise their services on the Internet, offering a variety of strains of cannabis and cannabis-based products, such as brownies and cookies, to legally certified patients. These outfits may or may not be legal — since few current laws directly address their existence — but they are almost as common as dry cleaners in California now, with customer reviews available on popular Websites like (“Best service ever,” says one Green Cross patron. “Seriously, so amazing. Great staff. Great people. Very knowledgeable. Gotta love the specials too!”)

The Wild Wild West
The rapid growth of California’s pot industry into uncharted legal territory has only heightened the stakes for Proposition 19, a monumental initiative on the November ballot that could make California the first state in the nation to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes. Thirteen other states followed suit after Californians passed Proposition 215 in 1996, enabling patients with a valid doctor’s recommendation to possess and cultivate marijuana for personal medical use, so activists on both sides of the issue will be watching closely, looking to gauge the national mood.

While advocates have mounted a strong push for legalization (a June survey by Public Policy Polling showed 52 percent support for Prop. 19), elected officials have been just as committed in their attempts to crack down on the so-called Green Rush in the state. According to Americans for Safe Access, a total of 129 cities and nine counties across California have banned medical marijuana dispensaries. However, as more dispensaries are forced to shut down, a growing number of pot delivery services are avoiding such restrictions and thriving as a result.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Southern California, where estimates on the number of dispensaries in Los Angeles have ranged from 500 to 1,000. In an attempt to control the marijuana industry in the area, the L.A. City Council passed an ordinance in January of this year requiring all marijuana dispensaries that violated the city’s 2007 moratorium on new collectives to shut down their physical locations. As a result, the 439 dispensaries that ignored the initial moratorium were forced to close, and even tighter restrictions were placed on the remaining dispensaries. Under the ordinance, which went into effect June 7, only 41 are now technically eligible to stay open.

Kevin Reed’s Green Cross was the first medical marijuana dispensary to obtain a permit for delivery in San Francisco four years ago, after being forced by the city council there to shut down and move locations. Since then, he has run a successful medical-marijuana delivery service that is in compliance with all city regulations.

“There is a Wild West atmosphere right now in California and especially in L.A.,” Reed says. Reed relates the situation to his own experience with San Francisco’s city council. “I think the rise of delivery services in L.A. has a tremendous amount to do with the ordinance and forced closures. It was big news when San Francisco closed us down, and I think a lot of dispensaries in L.A. saw the success we had, and are now trying to emulate our delivery business model.”

City officials in Los Angeles are struggling to contain the growth of such delivery services, and maintain that their existence is in violation of the ordinance passed in January. According to Monica Valencia, press deputy for L.A. city councilman Ed Reyes, “[the medical-marijuana delivery services] are prohibited per our city ordinance. Unless the collectives are registered, they are in violation of the city’s ordinance.”
To regulate or not to regulate?
A real estate developer who uses the name Matt Lawrence for his business is the director of C420, an online medical-marijuana dispensary service that ships to more than 1,000 legal customers across the state. The nonprofit collective, which opened in April 2010, has hubs in both Northern and Southern California, and uses an unnamed third-party carrier to deliver the product. Lawrence emphasized the importance of following state and national guidelines, saying, “All of our customers are pre-verified with the appropriate documents and doctor’s notes. Additionally, all of our products are produced within the state. We also do not ship marijuana products out of the state, because that is against federal law.”

A longtime advocate of medical cannabis, Lawrence says, “I am actually in favor of the L.A. ordinance. The situation is out of control in California, and without proper regulation, there is a lot of opportunity for fraud and unhealthy, low-grade marijuana to be sold.”


Matthew Lawrence operates C420, a California medical marijuana collective.

On the other hand, Dann Halem, owner of Artists Collective, has a less favorable opinion of the crackdown in L.A. Prior to the city council vote in January, Halem moved his base of operations out of Los Angeles to West Hollywood, and set up a mobile dispensary that is now doing quite well.
“The L.A. City Council has consistently been behind on this issue. I think they are making a big mistake by forcing over 400 dispensaries to close down. Rather than regulating it and seeing the positive outcomes, they have taken the approach of containment and control. This really doesn’t benefit anyone. This industry has the potential to raise a huge amount of money for good initiatives through proper regulation.”

Councilman Reyes, who has overseen most of the consideration of the medical-marijuana-dispensaries issue, claims that the city council “has implemented a medical-marijuana ordinance that we believe is both prudent and fair. My goal has been and continues to be, implementing an ordinance that secures access for those who need access to dispensaries for medical purposes, while at the same time protecting the health and safety of our communities.”

Social benefit vs. legal nightmare
Among other attempts to control the growth of the industry overall, the state passed a law in 2003 authorizing marijuana collectives to operate strictly on a nonprofit basis. Halem, the owner of what he calls a “social business,” has capitalized on the booming medical-marijuana industry to do public good, by using medical marijuana profits to fund a social initiative. Halem accomplished this by donating his profits toward funding grants for emerging artists, writers, performers, and musicians. Halem said this is one of the most rewarding aspects of his job, as he has been able to inspire people in the art world, an industry that is consistently underfunded.

“I think marijuana should be legalized, but in a way that requires the company’s association with a federal nonprofit organization. I am against Proposition 19, because it appears to eliminate the nonprofit factor. It is hard enough to be a medical marijuana nonprofit dispensary, and Proposition 19 would make it even more difficult because we’d have to compete with big corporations. In short, we are in favor of legalization, but not corporatization.”

Reed feels differently about the proposition, fearing that full legalization of marijuana would benefit only recreational users, and not his patients. He adds that since becoming a delivery service, he has come to greatly appreciate the direct contact with his customers and the more welcoming response from the surrounding San Francisco neighborhood, claiming, “When we switched to delivery, suddenly people loved us because we were no longer a visible presence in the neighborhood.”

But a substantial number remain opposed to legalization under any scenario, delivery service or not. Roger Morgan, for instance, executive director of the spearheading anti-drug organization Coalition for a Drug-Free California, voices the group’s outrage in no uncertain terms: “We are against Proposition 19. It would be a legal nightmare. The proposition itself is so ridiculous; I think whoever wrote it must have been smoking pot at the time. Marijuana is a dangerous substance that causes irreversible harm to developing brains, and if it is legalized, there is no way to guarantee it wouldn’t get into the hands of kids who would be severely hurt by the drug.”

Halem acknowledged that while many people can get a recommendation for medical marijuana today and his customers certainly “run the gamut,” many of his patients are clearly physically ill and need their medication delivered.

“The most rewarding part of the job is to have the ability to help someone who is really sick. When you help someone who is in a lot of pain, it is a great feeling. Frankly, it is these moments that keep us going, and I hope we will continue to be successful.”

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