Pubdate: Sun, 19 Jul 2009
Source: Daily Breeze (Torrance, CA)
Copyright: 2009 Associated Press
Authors: Marcus Wohlsen and Lisa Leff, The Associated Press
Bookmark: (Cannabis - California)


SAN FRANCISCO - A drug deal plays out, California-style: A 
conservatively dressed courier drives a company-leased Smart Car to 
an apartment on a weekday afternoon. Erick Alvaro hands over a white 
paper bag to his 58-year-old customer, who inspects the bag to ensure 
that everything he ordered over the phone is there.

An eighth-ounce of organic marijuana buds for treating his seasonal 
allergies? Check. An eighth of a different pot strain for insomnia? 
Check. THC-infused lozenges and tea bags? Check and check, with a 
free herb-laced cookie thrown in as a thank-you gift.

It's a $102 credit card transaction carried out with the practiced 
efficiency of a home-delivered pizza.

More and more, having pot delivered to your door in California is not 
a crime. It is a legitimate business.

Since the state became the first to legalize the drug for medicinal 
use, the weed the federal government puts in the same category as 
heroin and cocaine has become a major economic force. Based on the 
quantity of marijuana authorities seized last year, the crop alone 
was worth an estimated $17 billion or more, dwarfing any other sector 
of the state's agricultural economy.

But pot in California also props up local economies, mints 
millionaires and feeds a thriving industry of startups - stores that 
sell high-tech marijuana growing equipment, pot clubs that pay rent 
and hire workers, chains of for-profit clinics that specialize in 
medical pot recommendations.

The plant's prominence does not come without costs, say some critics. 
Marijuana plantations in remote forests cause severe environmental 
damage. Authorities link the drug to violent crime in otherwise quiet 
small towns.

Still, the sheer scale of the overall pot economy has some lawmakers 
pushing for broader legalization as a way to shore up the finances of 
a financially strained state. The state's top tax collector estimates 
that taxing pot like liquor could bring in more than $1.3 billion annually.

With a recent poll showing more than half of Californians supporting 
legalization, pot advocates believe they will prevail. And they say 
other states will follow.

Tim Blake owns a 145-acre spiritual retreat center which holds an 
annual marijuana bud-growing contest in the heart of Northern 
California's pot-growing country.

Politicians, he says, are "going to see the economic benefits, 
they're going to see the health benefits and they're going to jump on 
the bandwagon."

On a property flanked by vineyards, Mendocino County farmer Jim Hill 
grows marijuana for up to 20 patients, including himself.

Hill's plants enjoy careful nurturing in a temperature-controlled 
greenhouse. Hill, 45, says he spent $10,000 to set up the garden. 
Patients receive their drugs free in exchange for helping with his crop.

Though marijuana is cultivated throughout California, the most prized 
crops come from the forested mountains and hidden valleys of 
Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties.

The economic impact of so much pot is difficult to gauge. Authorities 
say the largest groves are run by Mexican drug cartels.

Still, marijuana money from plots flows into local coffers. Marijuana 
increases residents' retail buying power by about $58 million 
countywide, according to a Mendocino County report. The county ranks 
48th out of 58 counties in median income but, by counting pot 
proceeds, could jump as high as 18th.

Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman says medical marijuana operations 
that follow state and county laws will face no hassles from his 
department. His deputies left intact 154 marijuana fields they 
visited last year, he said

"If you're living in the boundaries, I'm not going to mess with you," 
Allman said.

Which is not to say that there is no legal risk to growing, selling 
or buying marijuana. Federal laws still apply, and pot dealings not 
deemed medicinal are considered criminal by the state.

Sparky Rose sits in the federal prison in Lompoc, serving a 37-month 
term. Law enforcement officials insist he is one of many sellers who 
have used the medical marijuana law as a guise for drug dealing. Rose 
does not disagree.

Rose says he was making $500,000 a year before his 2006 arrest, a sum 
he considers fair given the volume and the risk he assumed.

"While I was still in the business, a lot of people would ask me, 
'I'm thinking about starting a club, what advice do you have?"' he 
says. "And I'd say, 'The biggest warning is sooner or later, you will 
start to think it's legal."'

Even people accustomed to buying marijuana over the counter are 
impressed when they visit the Farmacy, a dispensary-cum-New Age 
apothecary with three locations in Los Angeles. The Venice-based 
store sells organic toiletries and essential oils, along with 25 
types of pot stored in glass jars.

During a two-hour span, the dozen or so customers who made a purchase 
all bought pot products and paid the 9.25 percent state sales tax. 
The clubs, which are not supposed to turn a profit, call their 
transactions "donations."

Allen Siegel is 74; he is dying of cancer and wants to try smoking 
marijuana to ease his pain without knocking him out. So his wife, 
Ina, brought him to the Farmacy. "You go in there and they have so 
many choices," she says.

California's "green rush" was spurred by a voter-approved law 13 
years ago that lets patients with a doctor's recommendation to 
possess and grow marijuana for personal use.

Although a dozen other states have adopted similar laws, California 
is the only one where privately owned pot shops have flourished. L.A. 
County alone has at least 400 dispensaries and delivery services, 
nearly twice as many as Amsterdam. California's pot dispensaries 
advertise freely, offering coupons and daily specials.

Justin Hartfield, a 25-year-old Web designer, founded, 
where pot clubs and doctors list their services and users post 
reviews. He says the site brought in $20,000 this month.

Like just about everyone else in the cannabis trade, Hartfield has a 
letter from a doctor that entitles him to buy medical marijuana. But 
he doesn't pretend he is treating anything.

"It is a joke. It's a legal way for me to get what I used to get on 
the street," he said.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom