One interesting alternative for patients who want to comply with the laws is to join or organize a cultivation co-op. (Collective cultivation is usually an implicit right in state medical marijuana laws). If several patients work together on a collective garden while sharing expenses, labor, and a common grow-area, it’s much easier to provide a consistent supply within the constraints of the law. The garden’s size can be scaled to the number of patients using the garden.
Economies of scale make it much more convenient for ten patients to grow 30 plants together than for each patient to grow three plants individually. The major problem facing co-ops is purely organizational. Finding nearby patients with a willingness to work can be difficult. Luckily, we live in the information age and there are plenty of avenues for connecting with other patients through the internet.
The other problem with these ventures is that their size generally attracts some interest from law enforcement. Larger gardens increase the likelihood that it will be discovered and potentially searched by police on the grounds of suspicion of illegal cultivation or sale. Many of the most difficult medical marijuana cases tend to involve co-ops rather than individuals. When gardens begin to increase their quantity of plants into the hundreds, local authorities are more likely to call in the DEA as a way to use federal law to remove the defendants of any medical marijuana defense under state law. As of this writing, over 100 medical marijuana providers have faced federal charges and almost all of them were in California. It seems likely that this will continue to happen until the federal law is changed (if it ever is).
Of course, the simplest solution to all of this would be to allow patients to buy their marijuana from a store or pharmacy like any other medicine.
Medical Cannabis Dispensaries
This solution is currently only available in California, Colorado, Canada, and a few other locales that accept so-called medical cannabis dispensaries (or compassion/buyers’ clubs). Dispensaries are basically stores in which marijuana sold to patients who have a doctor’s recommendation. Most dispensaries will only sell to patients who can legally purchase cannabis under state law while excluding those from other states. Ironically, though, dispensaries are not even technically legal under state or federal law, even if they are tolerated by local authorities.
Dennis Peron, the organizer of California’s Compassionate Use Initiative, established the very first public medical cannabis club in San Francisco in 1993, and pioneered the model for cannabis buyers’ clubs in the rest of California. The San Francisco Buyers’ Club was loosely based on an Amsterdam coffee shop with lounges, tables, and chairs where members could rest, socialize, and smoke. Entry was limited to actual members of the club who had to have a doctor’s note showing their need for medical marijuana. Cannabis was sold at a “bud bar” with a large menu of varieties usually sold in eighths of an ounce (enough for 3 to 6 joints). You could also find soft drinks, other refreshments, and even cannabis edibles. The club maintained a variety of activities and social services including patient support groups, massage therapy, a doctor’s research group, meeting spaces, and recreational activities. When Prop. 215 was on the ballot, the club became Peron’s political headquarters. It was originally located in a relatively unexceptional upstairs space, but the club relocated to a five-story building in downtown San Francisco to accommodate the growing number of members. At its peak, the club boasted over 12,000 members with media and visitors flocking to it from around the globe to see medical marijuana dispensed in a friendly, accommodating, and safe environment.
Of course, this all occurred outside of any legal sanctions. The club opened up prior to California’s medical marijuana law being passed after the 1991 approval of a non-binding marijuana resolution by the city’s voters (Proposition P). Following the approval of Prop. 215, California law still did not specifically allow for distribution or sales of marijuana, only personal use and cultivation. Even so, San Francisco city officials were very supportive and the local police refused to bust Peron’s club.
Unfortunately, this acceptance did not extend to state officials. One of those official in particular, Attorney General Dan Lungren, was an archconservative opponent of California’s new medical marijuana law. At the best of Lungren himself, the state narcotics agents raided Peron’s club and eventually forced it to shut down. By this time, though, other dispensaries had started sprouting up and within a year after Prop. 215’s passage, a dozen different dispensaries had begun operation.
Alarmed by the widespread nature of these new dispensaries, federal officials sprang into action. The Department of Justice filed a lawsuit in 1998 to close six of the most popular dispensaries, the first of which was Oakland’s Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative. Advocated for the dispensaries maintained in court that federal laws did not apply to the dispensaries because they weren’t engaged in interstate commerce. They were also quick to point out that states had a right to legislate their own laws and that marijuana was medically required for some patients to relieve pain and suffering. The district court dismissed these arguments and issued an injunction to close the six dispensaries (including the OCBC). The ruling was partly reversed by the 9th Circuit Court of appeals but was ultimately reaffirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2001 (U.S. v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative).
Nevertheless, the closures of both the OCBC and Peron’s club have not deterred medical marijuana dispensaries in California. After the Supreme Court’s ruling, there were more dispensaries in the state than at any other time. The federal government took another swipe at the dispensaries, raiding Southern California’s only major one (the LA Cannabis Resource Center) just weeks after 9/11. Following this raid it went on to harass the state’s leading cultivation cooperative (the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana) which served over 200 gravely ill patients in Santa Cruz. Still, clubs flourished as tolerance for the dispensaries grew, aided by the election of Bill Lockyer to the office of attorney general. Lockyer was openly sympathetic to medical marijuana and maintained that the official policy of the attorney general was to let local counties and cities permit medical marijuana dispensaries if they want to. As a result, some localities, including Oakland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles County, enacted ordinances that officially regulated dispensaries in spite of their illegality under federal law. Other localities were quick to ban them entirely.
After 2004, dispensaries saw huge increases in number when hundreds of clubs began sprouting up in Los Angeles and Southern California. The DEA countered in 2007 by raiding dozens of LA-area dispensaries and sending letters to the landlords warning that their land could be subject to federal forfeiture. If history is any indication, there will likely be a retrenchment, followed by resurgence, in dispensaries.
Occasionally, federal agents will continue to harass and occasionally arrest medical cannabis providers. In most cases, the targets are dispensaries that have become conspicuously too big and profitable or which have antagonized local officials. Luckily, the feds have never once pursued the members or patients associated with dispensaries.
For some reason, there is still an obvious lack of cannabis dispensaries in other states that are not California. But, there are an increasing number of patients’ support groups and co-ops that assist patients with cultivation or obtaining medicine for themselves in states like Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Michigan, Hawaii, Montana, and Rhode Island. In Canada, where marijuana use is protected by a decision of the nation’s highest court, “compassion clubs” are operating publicly and without fear of reprisal in many different cities. At this juncture, it appears improbable that the U.S. Justice Department will be able to halt the spread of cannabis co-ops and dispensaries in any meaningful way.
Shopping for Cannabis Dispensaries
Many cannabis dispensaries can be found on the Internet at websites like www.canorml.org. Many maintain websites of their own, and some will even advertise in local newspapers.
Cannabis dispensaries come in a variety of different shapes and sizes. Almost none operate on the enormous scale of Peron’s original dispensary. Many dispensaries operate as convenient take-out stores wherein patients arrive, present their IDs, but their medicine, and leave with no other services provided. Very few establishments allow on-site consumption. Despite the fact that local laws prohibit smoking, certain dispensaries will allow you to use vaporizers instead. Almost all restrict their clientele solely to in-state citizens who are legal under state law. First-time patients are usually required to bring in their physician’s recommendation to prove their legality, although a few states will honor patient ID cards. Most dispensaries will also limit sales to no more than a single ounce at a time as a way to discourage illegal redistribution.
Some dispensaries also offer cannabis extracts, tonics, oils, and hashish if it’s permitted by local authorities. You’ll also find a dazzling array of edibles including cannabis-tainted cookies, brownies, cakes, candies, butter, cooking oil, ice cream, soda, and even peanut butter and jelly. As always, it is difficult to gauge an edible’s potency, but producers have begun commercially manufacturing edibles of consistent and predictable potency. Unfortunately, the industry has garnered some adverse attention from the DEA which has busted a few of the largest producers.
You also have to run the unfortunate risk of low-quality, impure cannabis in dispensaries because federal laws have kept growers hidden from the public eye where it’s virtually impossible to monitor their use of pesticides, the plant’s potency and cannabinoid content, the strain, or their adherence to organic standards. Unless they grow it themselves, dispensaries cannot divulge the source of their marijuana. Customers are then forced to rely on word of mouth and anecdotal evidence.
Clones are highly-valuable products that dispensaries can offer for patients to begin their own gardens. Clones are difficult for dispensaries to utilize because they take up a lot of space and need to be carefully maintained with light and water. In addition, the possession of 100 clones or more will automatically expose the owner to a federal mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years if caught. It is therefore legally safer to carry bulk marijuana, for which mandatory minimums don’t start up until one reaches the quantity of 100 kilos. Regardless, some dispensaries do offer clones at remarkably affordable prices as low as $10 per clone which is no more than a single joint.
Unfortunately, you won’t find a lot of dispensaries willing to offer seeds. Domestic supplies of seeds tend to be scant because most growers stick to growing seedless sinsemilla. For the most part, seed suppliers are based in foreign companies from Canada and Europe. Even though their products can be ordered illegally on the Internet for anonymous shipment through mail to the U.S., there are some definite legal risks in receiving them. The DEA is consistently searching for foreign seed exporters and has been known to intercept and seize their customer lists.
Patients and law enforcement officials both protest the high price of cannabis from dispensaries. Prices are generally about $40 to $70 for an eighth of an ounce, which isn’t much different from the illegal street price. In dispensaries, the cannabis price is likely so high as a result of all the costs involved in running the store—rent, wages, insurance, security, bookkeeping, and even taxes (in California, medical marijuana is subject to sales taxes). This is all in addition to the increased costs incurred as a result of federal prohibition. Conversely, dispensaries also deliver increased value to the customer by providing a wider choice of product, a safer and more pleasant environment, and a reliable and accountable source that customers can count on. It does pay to shop around as prices vary widely among competing dispensaries. Dispensaries that charge too much will eventually be forced to close or drop their prices. The market always evens out in the end.
If you aren’t fond of the market price, your best option to grow cannabis yourself. In most medical marijuana states, this is the only legal option. Unfortunately, it can be easy to get on the law’s bad side even if you are operating entirely legally. This is because you still risk being arrested by particularly malevolent cops. Although cannabis dispensaries are illegal, there’s really no law against buying marijuana, only selling, growing, and possessing it. Weigh your options carefully and know the risks before you start growing your own crop.