Supplying and Demanding Marijuana Legalization

by Tony Chavira

On November 5, folks at Occupy LA opened a stand that gave away free grams of marijuana to Occupiers. It was considered an act of civil dissent, much like the occupation itself. Here’s how it looked:

Of course, just about everyone at the occupation went to the stand, and the head of Occupy LA’s security was practically the first person in line. And strange as it seemed, the LAPD didn’t actually arrest anyone (despite standing in front of the stand and heckling the providers on video). But why not? And why were the Occupiers comfortable walking right up to what would otherwise seem to be a trap? Weren’t they scared of being arrested?

The process of getting marijuana is simple and straightforward for those with doctors’ recommendations: register for a supplier, buy as much as you need per month, and renew your card annually. You pay fees to the state, fees for the medical recommendation and fees to the marijuana dispensary. Though some of that money benefits the state, most of it benefits the suppliers, who make a decent profit dispensing marijuana to the card-carrying community. But unlike in Mendocino—more on that in a moment—none of the money paid by medical marijuana patients for their cards goes to the LA County Sheriff’s office or the LAPD, and that’s a shame.

Over the past few years, Mendocino County has become a laboratory to test the limits of local power against federal law. The experiment all started with rampant, wild and totally uncontrolled marijuana growth once the state of California legalized medicinal marijuana behind the nation’s back. Mendocino officials, naturally, were scared. Like all responsible elected officials at that time, they had been told by the higher-ups that drugs were bad and brought bad people with them. But unlike other places, Mendocino was overrun by huge swaths of pot and huger swaths of money from pot sales. “How can we cash in on this while keeping our people safe?” officials wondered. And with a brilliant stroke of the pen, they developed a method for registering legal growers with the county sheriff, whose office is the direct beneficiary of money paid for growers permits.

Though the list of restrictions is long and specific, the county became safer, the sheriffs became richer, and local police could patrol comfortably knowing that they wouldn’t have to lock up a 16-year-old for 30 days over a quarter of shitty swag.

But a few days ago, the DEA (who, you’d think, should be a lot more like the FDA and a lot less like the ATF) crashed through every window of NorthStone Organics and raided their stash. Matthew Cohen, the dastardly kingpin in charge of NorthStone, told his story to California Watch.

Poor Mister Cohen is by definition not a criminal when he legally registers himself and his company. But when the DEA is willing to raid the farm of a person who follows local and state laws to the letter and operates with complete transparency, what’s the incentive for any other operation to be transparent? Once they’ve all gone underground and every dark corner is filled with either a criminal operation with its own security force or an equally violent federal agent with a machine gun, how can Mendocino sheriffs keep their county safe?

Occupy musicians, conceivably high
photo: The Fix

Obviously, this confusion over who’s in charge spills over from the supply side to the demand side of marijuana. It’s easy to demonize, ridicule, or even arrest marijuana users or suppliers for doing something that federal law considers illegal. But it’s not in the best interest of safety. If the job of police and sheriff’s departments is to ensure safety, how does arresting potheads or shutting down their (locally) legally registered suppliers do that?

This is exactly the dilemma the LAPD found themselves in at Occupy L.A. Two weeks ago, a supplier decided to provide free marijuana to Occupy LA to show solidarity with the cause. But instead of solidifying their cause, the action fractured the group into two: those who support total legalization and see it as a form of protest, and those who try to follow the rules set by other Occupy movements and therefore want to ban any drug use in the camps. The LAPD and L.A. Sheriff’s Department were also at a loss for what to do. If they began to arrest Occupiers for taking free marijuana, the users, the supply chain and the key contacts with access to marijuana would all go back underground. They wouldn’t be able to monitor who was doing drugs and who was not, and that could have an effect on the camp’s safety.

But what happened in Mendocino changed the drug enforcement game. Now it doesn’t matter if local police try to protect marijuana suppliers of not. If the DEA can legally request lists of marijuana providers, systematically arrest them and destroy their crops, what message does that send to marijuana providers trying to follow the California law to its letter? That local and federal enforcement will work together to entrap you?

As long as California voters support medical marijuana, marijuana supplies will have to come from somewhere. But they only, really, have two options: providers who register with authorities and whose supplies are legally protected and monitored by government agencies, or providers following the Mexican cartel model: illegal, underground operations that hire protection forces to confront and kill authorities that try to shut them down. And worse.

In the end, it’s smarter to protect marijuana suppliers who have legally registered in California than to arrest then under any circumstance. Since suppliers can rely on police (and don’t hire their own shady security thugs), our communities stay safe. Since suppliers don’t have to develop complex, underground methods of growing and transporting merchandise, police don’t have to devote any effort to understanding and dismantling them. And since the DEA and local sheriffs can easily monitor suppliers, distributors and each transaction, they can devote less money and fewer operational resources to the day-to-day bustle of bustin’ up small time pot shacks and focus instead of large-scale illegal international operations.

There’s no place in America with legal inconsistencies like California’s, and eventually there will be a breaking point. As long as California police and sheriff’s departments understand and help with the realities of marijuana users and suppliers on the ground while the DEA insists on using their documentation to scare and crack down on marijuana operations, it can only be a matter of time before we reach some kind of breaking point. Either our communities will be safely monitored and all suppliers will go legal and be protected in the process, or all suppliers will go underground and there will be violence and chaos.

We cannot have it both ways, and soon we will need to choose for ourselves.

Tony Chavira is the President of FourStory, a nonprofit organization that promotes fairness and social justice through strong writing and storytelling. He is also the Program Developer at RACAIA Architecture, writes and posts comics at Minefield Wonderland, and teaches Business Report Writing at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.


great, great piece.

2011-12-2 by Donna Schoenkopf

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