Medical marjuana’s influence on the pot trade

The New Yorker offers a peek inside the marijuana trade in California:

It was now three o’clock in the afternoon, and Captain Blue was dozing after a copious inhalation of purified marijuana vapor. (His nickname is an homage to his favorite variety of bud.) His hair was black and greasy, and was spread across his pillow. On the front of his purple T-shirt, which had slid up to expose his round belly, were the words “Big Daddy.” With his arm wrapped around a three-foot-long green bong, he resembled a large, contented baby who has fallen asleep with his milk bottle.

Captain Blue is a pot broker. More precisely, he helps connect growers of high-grade marijuana upstate to the retail dispensaries that sell marijuana legally to Californians on a doctor’s recommendation.

…“Try Sour Diesel,” he told the client. “Take that and the Bubba Kush.” In addition to Sour Diesel and Bubba Kush, which are grown indoors, he also had AK Mist, an outdoor strain; Jedi, which is brown and fuzzy; Purple Urkel, whose hue is suggested by its name; O.G. Kush and L.A. Confidential, two particularly potent strains; and Lavender, a fragrant purple grown up North. Modern Kush plants are derived from a strain that is said to have originated in the Hindu Kush mountains, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and, according to stoner lore, was imported to Southern California by some hippie surfers in the seventies, and then popularized in the late nineties by the Los Angeles rap group Cypress Hill. Stronger, better-tasting varieties of pot can sell for more than five thousand dollars per pound, more than double the price of average weed. The premium paid for designer pot creates a big incentive for growers and dealers to name their product for whatever strains happen to be fashionable that year. The variety of buds being sold as Kush has proliferated to the point where even the most catholic-minded botanist would be hard pressed to identify a common plant ancestor.

And some background on it’s legal status:

In 2003, the California State Legislature passed Senate Bill 420. The law was intended to clear up some of the confusion caused by Proposition 215, which had failed to specify how patients who could not grow their own pot were expected to obtain the drug, and how much pot could be cultivated for medical purposes. The law permitted any Californian with a doctor’s note to own up to six mature marijuana plants, or to possess up to half a pound of processed weed, which could be obtained from a patients’ collective or coöperative—terms that were not precisely defined in the statute. It also permitted a primary caregiver to be paid “reasonable compensation” for services provided to a qualified patient “to enable that person to use marijuana.”

The counties of California were allowed to amend the state guidelines, and the result was a patchwork of rules and regulations. Upstate in Humboldt County, the heartland of high-grade marijuana farming in California, the district attorney, Paul Gallegos, decided that a resident could grow up to ninety-nine plants at a time, in a space of a hundred square feet or less, on behalf of a qualified patient. The limited legal protections afforded to pot growers and dispensary owners have turned marijuana cultivation and distribution in California into a classic “gray area” business, like gambling or strip clubs, which are tolerated or not, to varying degrees, depending on where you live and on how aggressive your local sheriff is feeling that afternoon. This summer, Jerry Brown, the state’s attorney general, plans to release a more consistent set of regulations on medical marijuana, but it is not clear that California’s judges will uphold his effort. In May, the state Court of Appeal, in Los Angeles, ruled that Senate Bill 420’s cap on the amount of marijuana a patient could possess was unconstitutional, because voters had not approved the limits.

Most researchers agree that the value of the U.S. marijuana crop has increased sharply since the mid-nineties, as California and twelve other states have passed medical-marijuana laws. A drug-policy analyst named Jon Gettman recently estimated that in 2006 Californians grew more than twenty million pot plants. He reckoned that between 1981 and 2006 domestic marijuana production increased tenfold, making pot the leading cash crop in America, displacing corn. A 2005 State Department report put the country’s marijuana crop at twenty-two million pounds. The street value of California’s crop alone may be as high as fourteen billion dollars.

According to Americans for Safe Access, which lobbies for medical marijuana, there are now more than two hundred thousand physician-sanctioned pot users in California. They acquire their medication from hundreds of dispensaries, collectives that are kept alive by the financial contributions of their patients, who pay cash for each quarter or eighth of an ounce of pot. The dispensaries also buy marijuana from their members, and sometimes directly from growers, whose crops can also be considered legal, depending on the size of the crop, the town where the plants are grown, and the disposition of the judge who hears the case.

California’s encouragement of a licit market for pot has set off a low-level civil war with the federal government. Growing, selling, and smoking marijuana remain strictly illegal under federal law. The Drug Enforcement Administration, which maintains that marijuana poses a danger to users on a par with heroin and PCP, has kept up an energetic presence in the state, busting pot growers and dispensary owners with the coöperation of some local police departments.

In the past five years, an unwritten set of rules has emerged to govern Californians participating in the medical-marijuana trade. Federal authorities do not generally bother arresting patients or doctors who write prescriptions. Instead, the D.E.A. pressures landlords to evict dispensaries and stages periodic raids on them, either shutting them down or seizing their money and marijuana. Dispensary owners are rarely arrested, and patient records are usually left alone. Through trial and error, dispensary owners have learned how to avoid trouble: Don’t advertise in newspapers, on billboards, or on flyers distributed door to door. Don’t sell to minors or cops. Don’t open more than two stores. Any Californian who is reasonably prudent can live a life centered on the cultivation, sale, and consumption of marijuana with little fear of being fined or going to jail.