The medical marijuana collective next door to the Tehama County Sheriff's Office is, for now, closed - pushed to stop dispensing after a relentless campaign by Sheriff Clay Parker.
But across the street from the Sheriff's Office on Antelope Boulevard, BR Growing Supply and Hydroponics is not only open but thriving in its second location since its founding a year ago. Business was so good that owners Boyd and Rena Hedden set up shop in a larger storefront to peddle their array of liquid fertilizers, light-proof growing boxes, high-intensity lamps and other specialty horticultural equipment.
Some customers are cultivating strawberries or starting tomatoes, Boyd Hedden said, but he estimated 90 percent of his business comes from medical-cannabis growers. And in the depth of a brutal recession, this is one merchant with a smile on his face.
Californians voted to allow the medicinal use of marijuana 13 years ago through Proposition 215, but conflicting federal laws - and the U.S. Justice Department's eagerness to enforce them - kept patients and especially their suppliers mostly in the shadows. This spring, though, the Obama administration announced that federal authorities would not pursue drug charges in medical-marijuana cases so long as users followed state law. The "green rush" of entrepreneurs opening storefront "collectives" has brought a hidden subculture into the open.
It's also brought a backlash - nowhere more than in Tehama County, where county and Red Bluff city officials have waged the toughest battle in the north state against medical-marijuana dispensaries.
So far, they've won.
The one collective that bucked city officials and opened in Red Bluff, the Blue Toad, closed after three weeks when the city threatened to fine not just its founders, Lana Aguiar and her daughter, Ashley, but also their landlord for violating city codes.
Just outside the city limits, Sheriff Parker cited Mike and Dawn Jenkins, owners of the Red Bluff Patient Collective, for 35 straight days before the county stepped up the pressure and asked a judge to order the collective closed. In court on Dec. 3, the Jenkinses' attorney, Keith Cope, said they'd agreed to shut down until the Tehama County supervisors finish writing an ordinance to regulate local medical-marijuana dispensaries. They still face misdemeanor criminal charges related to defying the zoning ordinance and temporary moratorium.
Crackdown-minded authorities have won their battles. Outside the courtrooms and county offices, though, it's hard not to get a sense that they're on the losing side of a bigger cultural war.
To skeptics, smoking pot for your health is still an idea that doesn't pass the giggle test. In fact, many users employ a smokeless vaporizer or eat cannabis in baked goods or butter, but the bottom line for critics remains that it's an illegal drug whose users just want to get high.
Minds are changing, though, one at a time. And in tight-knit, conservative Tehama County, medical-marijuana supporters pop up in places that defy stereotype.
On the Red Bluff Round-Up board, where Director Joe Froome is facing criminal charges for growing marijuana. He was arrested in October and arraigned late last month, but argues he was doing it for bona-fide medical use through a nonprofit he's set up, Tehama County Holistic Health Cooperative Inc. He sat in at the Jenkinses' recent court date to show solidarity.
Among the lawyers. Cope, who's represented both the Red Bluff Patient Collective and the Blue Toad, is a straight-laced longtime prosecutor in Shasta County who could pass for Clark Kent. He's a Brigham Young University graduate who professes his deep admiration for his former mentor McGregor Scott, the ex-Shasta County district attorney and the region's U.S. attorney for most of President George W. Bush's administration. And he says his clients are not drug dealers but are trying to perform a public service of supplying medicine for patients, while complying with state law.
At last weekend's Red Bluff Gun Show, where event organizer Richard Day invited activists to set up a booth and distribute information about medical marijuana. Why? He knows a vendor whose girlfriend died of cancer, her pain eased by cannabis butter. "I believe, controlled correctly, there is a real need for it," Day said. He added that he was a little worried how the gun-show crowd might react - "As gun owners, we're classified as rednecks" - but feedback was overwhelmingly positive. "They weren't against it, as a medical form," he said.
A Dose of Relief
Day praised the ambassadorial skills of Ken Prather, co-founder of the Tehama Herbal Collective ( THC ) in Corning, the only dispensary operating in the county. He's worked to reach out to the community, speaking at the gun show, to the Kiwanis Club, to pretty much anyone who will listen. "The more we keep bringing them in the loop," he said, "the more it seems they accept it."
THC's startup, though, wasn't so friendly. The city of Corning initially denied the request for a permit to open on Solano Street downtown. Prather and his partners opened anyway.
"I own a couple homes down here and I know the mayor," said Prather, an off-and-on Corning resident since age 4, "and I told him that I'd sell everything and sue them" if the city tried to shut the collective down. Four months later, it's still in business, with more than 1,000 members.
Prather said the collective complies with all tax laws and labor regulations, and maintains tight security and surveillance. The police have been in for tours. County health inspectors even checked the kitchen to ensure THC's "edibles" were being made under sanitary conditions.
Prather recognizes, though, that there's still a long road to acceptance.
"I've got people I've known all my life in this town who won't talk to you about the marijuana thing, but they'll talk to you about other things," he said. "It's kind of weird how backwoods they are about it."
The continuing taboo about marijuana and simple concern for privacy keep many Proposition 215 patients quiet, said Lana Aguiar of the now-shuttered Blue Toad in Red Bluff.
"People don't want to talk about their medical problems," she said. "I wish there was a way to find out how many residents of Red Bluff there are with 215s - most won't tell you."
Those who will tell tend to be closest to the movement.
Prather said he broke his neck in 1995, requiring two surgeries and huge quantities of painkillers in the years since. Marijuana is no cure, but by using it he "went from being on really high doses of methadone to low doses of methadone. I'm actually a functioning person."
If cannabis means a day awake and alert for Prather, it's a night's sleep for Alissa Eastman.
Eastman is a stay-at-home mother of two young children in Red Bluff who's gathered petition signatures and lobbied City Hall for more patient-friendly regulations. She's used cannabis, she said, to treat severe vomiting she attributed to an infection, then later during her pregnancy - "a little bit," she stressed - for extreme nausea.
After the birth of her second child, she said, even after he started sleeping through the night, she couldn't. Her physician diagnosed nervous tension. "My doctor prescribed sleeping pills, and I didn't want them," she said. Instead, she turned to cannabis. "I don't use it that much. I just use it for when I need it."
Eastman also reflects a divide among patients. A devotee of herbal medicine and natural healing, she says she would like to open a collective, but one with a broader focus - "more of a healing center than a pot dispensary."
To Eastman, many dispensaries are too profit-driven and play loose with the rules. "I've been to a few of the Redding collectives" - the city has at least 20 - "and I was appalled."
At the same time, she blames bad laws for creating a black market.
"It's ridiculous to think somone won't try to profit off it, because that's what our world created," she said. "People want it. It's in high demand. And it's illegal. It's prohibition."
The Law Is Still Evolving
That might not always be the case.
Sheriff Parker predicts that, in the next decade or so, Congress will change marijuana's status as a "Schedule I" drug, which under Drug Enforcement Administration rules is deemed to have no valid medical use. Just last month, the American Medical Association called on the federal government to ease up, in part to allow more rigorous medical research about marijuana.
"That's the way I think we need to solve the problem, but it doesn't have a lot of political traction," Parker said. "There are a lot of people who say it has no use, so we're not changing it from a Schedule I."
Paradoxically, if the federal government eased its no-exceptions ban, it could leave marijuana more closely regulated. If it were available by prescription, that would mean set doses for set times under close medical supervision, rather than the frequently loose "recommendations" that cannabis doctors now hand patients. At the same time, while collectives must - at least on paper - operate as nonprofits, legally prescribed marijuana could be sold with Big Pharma-sized profit margins.
Some would go further. Red Bluff City Councilman Jim Byrne, 83, said he supports the shutdown of the Blue Toad, which he said was violating city code ( and, incidentally, was across the street from his house near downtown Red Bluff ). But he also said he wouldn't mind seeing marijuana simply legalized.
"Personally I think - I know this is anathema - if it was legalized, the city could certainly use the sales tax," Byrne said. "And there's so many people doing it, what difference does it make? You might as well face facts."
That sentiment is one Californians will have a chance to debate at length next year. Three separate legalization initiatives are circulating, and at least one has serious backers and is thought likely to make the ballot.
Before that family-size can of worms is opened, though, nearly every city and county in the north state is wrestling with just how to regulate newly overt medical marijuana. Red Bluff's City Council voted for the strictest possible local ordinance in early November - banning all sales and cultivation, indoors or out - before backing off two weeks later and deciding to explore slightly more lenient rules. Even as Tehama County authorities have leaned on the Jenkinses to shut the Red Bluff Patient Cooperative, the Board of Supervisors has held workshops that medical-marijuana advocates describe as fair and open-minded.
The board might not have a choice. As lawyer Keith Cope said of his clients, "They're here to stay."
Andreas Fuhrmann, Bruce Ross
December 13, 2009