Medical Marijuana Growers Face Risky Legal Environment
Monday, November 23, 2009
Patients with a doctor's recommendation can legally possess and smoke marijuana in California for medical purposes. But where do they get their pot? The recent crackdown on marijuana dispensaries in San Diego has raised questions about legality of growing it and selling it. KPBS Reporter Tom Fudge spoke with two people who run marijuana cooperatives in San Diego.
Patients with a doctor's recommendation can legally possess and smoke marijuana in California for medical purposes. But where do they get their pot? The recent crackdown on marijuana dispensaries in San Diego has raised questions about legality of growing it and selling it.
California law says patients and caregivers can form collectives or cooperatives to cultivate marijuana for medical purposes. And that's what Josh Bilben said he's doing. He said he's providing a place for patients, who don't grow, to get medication from people who do."
"One of the big concerns that communities, city planner, everybody has is where is this coming from," said Bilben. "And what I'm able to say is this is coming from right here. No other place."
Bilben is the director of Delta Nine Therapy, a medical marijuana collective in San Diego. He spoke as he pushed aside a metal cage door and unzipped a plastic sheet, that covers the inside of a seven by seven foot room containing 24 marijuana plants. The room is one of two locations where his collective grows product. Banks of lights hover over the plants. A fan keeps the air moving and a humidifier puts out a stream of vapor. Bilben says he's growing a variety of plants.
"Now the Indica, the Purple Kush... when you take that it basically, in stoner terms, is called a couch lock," said Bilben. "You sit on the couch. You don't get up. You don't really think about a whole lot. Like I said, the purple Kush is really good for chronic pain."
The collection of plants doesn't look like very much. But Bilben hopes, once the plants reach their flowering apex, they will provide ten pounds of smokable buds for him and three other patients. The collective charges its members 18 dollars a gram for Purple Kush to cover the cost of production.
In September, San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis announced raids on 14 medical marijuana operations. She accused the dispensaries of earning a profit and selling to anyone who came in the door, both of which violate state law. Dumanis and police chief Bill Landsdowne went on to say they knew of no medical marijuana dispensaries in San Diego that were following the law.
But Josh Bilben believes he is following the law. Will Johnson does too. Johnson is director of the Kind Gardeners Collective, which grows plants in several San Diego locations.
"We have somebody's patio. Somebody's spare bedroom. We have an area in a commercial office. And this next month we'll have the basement of a residential home," said Johnson.
Johnson speaks from the patio of his Kensington home, located on the same street where the San Diego mayor resides. The growth of the medical marijuana business has raised concerns that dispensaries have gotten marijuana from illegal sources. Johnson says that's certainly possible.
"Is there a loophole where the cartel can come in and join the collective, and then start supplying the collective? I can imagine that," he said. "But think about that. Because we're not talking about Mexican pot being brought up here, because no dispensary is going to sell Mexi. It's crap."
The tussle over medical marijuana in California heated up last week when the District Attorney of Los Angeles said his office would prosecute any collective that sold marijuana. In September, San Diego DA Bonnie Dumanis said patients who need medical marijuana should grow their own.
But while state guidelines require marijuana operations to be non-profit, they do not say sales are illegal. Josh Bilben points out his marijuana collective generates state sales tax. Alex Kreit, the chairman of San Diego Medical Marijuana Task Force, adds that the law makes no requirement that patients just grow their own. He makes the comparison between a marijuana cooperative and a food coop.
"Anyone who's been a member of a food cooperative knows, it's not like everyone who's a member has to come in and grow their own turnips and grow their own radishes," said Kreit. "I think that is just not consistent with what is meant by a collective and cooperative, and what the law contemplates as a collective and cooperative."
The task force is writing recommendations to the San Diego City Council as to how medical marijuana businesses should be permitted and regulated.