A moment of hope and trouble for local marijuana advocates
on October 23, 2009
The transactions went down on Tuesday past the man standing watch outside the discreet coffee shop in downtown Oakland, behind a counter where a woman sold cake slices and espresso.
In a small room painted a mellow blue, and decorated with a mural that showed a smiling duck kayaking on Lake Merritt, a bud tender—in the medical marijuana industry, that’s a cross between a pharmacist and bartender—sold pain and stress remedies out of a binder filled with plastic pouches. A label on each bag denoted flavor and potency with names more evocative than most medicine brand names: Bubblegum, Hindu Skunk, Jack the Ripper.
The customers waiting in line were a bit camera-shy—technically speaking, possession of marijuana is still a crime under federal law—but they had no need to fear arrest. The man standing outside was a security guard, hired to help ensure that customers carried permits to use marijuana for medical reasons, and their purchases were sanctioned under California’s Compassionate Use Act, a voter initiative passed in 1996.
Like the duck painted on the wall behind the bud tender, these patrons at Coffeeshop Blue Sky could go about their business as if it was a glide across the lake, a fact celebrated by media spokesperson Greg Grimalda.
Grimalda, who works for the café and its owners at Oaksterdam University—a trade school headquartered at 17th Street and Broadway where one can learn the art of growing and marketing marijuana—sees the peaceful transactions at Coffeeshop Blue Sky as a model for the country.
If marijuana laws begin to loosen, he said, the streets surrounding Oaksterdam could be home to more coffee shops and perhaps a “bud and breakfast,” where visitors might be able to spend the night while sampling marijuana varieties. As in Amsterdam, Grimalda sees a district where cannabis could be sold as a safe, regulated product, enriching the area with tax revenue and increased revenues at nearby businesses.
“It seems like this could be a really promising area, even though it’s years and years away,” said Grimalda, who works out of a spotless office nearby.
Yet miles away from Coffeeshop Blue Sky, the legal future of cannabis remained nebulous on Thursday, as the U.S. Department of Justice announced the indictments of 14 Bay Area residents on charges they took part in a large-scale marijuana growing operation that took place in the Central Valley. The people targeted by the indictments, including a 29-year-old Oakland resident, face charges that they conducted a mortgage fraud scheme to acquire homes in cities including Sacramento, Stockton and Modesto and convert them into indoor marijuana farms.
“This Bay Area crime ring invaded our nice bedroom communities, set up marijuana factories, and ultimately impacted the real estate, mortgage and utility company industries,” Drug Enforcement Agent Gordon Taylor said in a written statement issued yesterday
The indictments were announced on the same day the Department of Justice also released information on the arrest of 303 people this week as part of an effort to disrupt the Mexican drug cartel known as La Familia. Agents seized 967 pounds of marijuana in the arrests, according to a Department of Justice Press release. These actions against marijuana dealers came just days after Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the federal government plans to take a more tolerant stance toward medical marijuana users and focus its interdiction efforts on large-scale traffickers.
In interviews conducted earlier this week, marijuana legalization advocates in Oakland and beyond said continued arrests for marijuana cultivation, possession and distribution can be seen as both obstacles and signs of hope in the drive to legalize marijuana.
One marijuana legalization advocate said continued arrests of marijuana dealers highlights weaknesses in national drug policy. Even as states decriminalize marijuana use through programs for medical purposes, the ongoing federal prohibition strengthens large-scale drug cartels, said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
“When the government complains about cartels, I hope the government is looking in the mirror,” St. Pierre said in a phone interview from his office in Washington, D.C.
Government-regulated outlets such as Coffeeshop Blue Sky provide a model that could eliminate the dominance of large-scale criminal groups, he said, especially if marijuana is decriminalized for non-medical uses.
“I think a lot of the business models that are effective right now with medical cannabis are transferable to non-medical purposes,” St. Pierre said.
At Oakland’s Harborside Health Center, a medical marijuana dispensary that offers patients counseling and yoga courses, Chief Executive Officer Steve De Angelo also expressed concerns over contradictions in federal marijuana laws. Even though medical marijuana use is gaining mainstream acceptance, the federal government’s policies on the drug continue to foster an environment in which criminality thrives.
De Angelo said that legitimate cannabis dispensaries are eager to distance themselves from criminal organizations, and that some arrests may help root out illegitimate operators and gain public trust. However, the fact that foreign cartels continue to garner large profits from marijuana production suggests a need for nationwide legalization, he said, since a legal, regulated trade could edge out illegal organizations.
“It’s probably the strongest argument one could advance for giving all Americans access to cannabis,” De Angelo said.
Oaksterdam University President Richard Lee, meanwhile, said continued arrests will simply galvanize marijuana advocates. Lee is currently leading a petition drive to place on the ballot next year a legalization initiative, which would allow anyone 21 and over to possess or grow marijuana for personal use.
Petitioners have gathered about a quarter of the 433,971 signatures they need by February 10 to get on the November 2010 ballot, according to Grimalda.
“Busting people will just make people more aware that we need to change the laws and tax and regulate it,” Lee said by phone. “I think people are realizing that it’s a waste of tax dollars and unfair.”
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