Whether it’s dispensaries or street sales, LA’s real fire season burns in the pipe
By Mark Cromer
Maybe somewhere high above Los Angeles, on a big, wispy puff of a magic dragon cloud, Daryl Gates found himself looking down on his old, literal stomping grounds with Jack Herer a couple of weeks ago.
What the heavenly odd couple (though both might consider such a scenario to be hell), who died just a day apart in mid-April, might have thought as they mulled over a gathering tribe downtown in the city of angels is anyone’s cosmic guess—even if the former chief of LAPD made no apologies for shining his shoes on hippie ass, and the earthy ganja activist’s life was dedicated to legalizing the sweet leaf of cannabis that Gates considered a demon weed.
But perhaps the recently departed Gates and Herer would have both shook their heads as they watched the second annual THCExpose unfold at the Los Angeles Convention Center April 23-25.
For Gates, the thousands of marijuana-loving people that poured into the convention center to inhale all things intoxicatingly green must have been a nightmarish trip from the Reefer Madness era when he first joined the force in 1949. For Herer, whose name and visage could glimpsed everywhere on the convention floor, it would have to have been the finest shotgun hit from earth to divinity: Cheech & Chong Telegraph Jack.
But the pot convention that rolled into Los Angeles—and let’s be clear, for all the cant about “medicine” and “patients,” it was a pot convention dedicated more to getting stoned than getting better—even as the city continues to grapple with the prairie fire of “medical marijuana” dispensaries, it signaled much more than some solar bong flare of aging boomers looking for the favorite glass water pipe they broke in the back of the microbus on the way to Woodstock.
Memo to Phillip Morris: The Stoner Nation has arrived.
Naturally, LA helped it shine with aisles upon aisles of vendors hawking any and all things marijuana. Traditional paraphernalia from Bob Marley’s era vied for dollars with vaporizers (a ubiquitous product at the LA show), pot Tees, pot adornments and, of course, nubile pot models.
Clazina Rose, a 22-year-old doe-eyed honey from Orange County that wore a plastic pot leaf lei and worked a table for a Long Beach dispensary, sincerely gushed like any pageant hopeful that she wanted peace, love and a healthy buzz for the people of Earth.
“I hope to be Miss High Times 2011,” she said. “I just want educate everyone. I’m brushing up on my Dutch in case I get to go to Amsterdam.”
Bucky Fisher, a veteran of the pot wars and the national sales manager of Medical Marijuana Inc., looked like the proverbial bright-eyed kid in the candy store amid the sprawl of vendors as he effused about keeping sales of the sacrament out of the hands of corporate poachers.
“We want a million people in our network that are ready to distribute when it becomes legal,” Fisher said with an eye to a future he considers closer than ever. “When we can market the product itself, we’d like to keep it among the little guys that have been doing it for a long time. Like a vineyard, we want to keep it among the vintners before Phillip Morris comes in.”
For merchants like Denis Buj, some mega corporate competitors may not seem as farfetched as it might have even five years ago.
Buj, a Canadian whose company has developed something called Spinner Hydroponics (imagine a stackable terrarium meets Ron Popeil’s “Set it and forget it!” rotisserie), declared the LA cannabis conference was a portent far more powerful than the dispensaries springing up like so many mushrooms.
“This THCExpose has blown the doors off this issue,” Buj said. “It is basically saying ‘This is what it is all about.’ In the past, it was backdoor gardening, in that we were pretending it was about growing tomatoes. Now we’re not beating around the bush, so to speak.”
And that’s what has Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Senior Narcotics Detective Glenn Walsh concerned. When asked if the scattershot legalization of pot and its migration into pseudo-legal retail points like dispensaries has led to a decline in street sales, which many at the convention insisted that it has, Walsh said it has likely bumped traditional, non-prescription sales upward.
“My assumption is that it has increased street sales,” Walsh said. “We look at the abuse triangle: accessibility, acceptability and affordability. You establish that, and use of marijuana increases.”
While hard numbers seemed elusive, both Walsh and the conventioneers said that prices offered by dispensaries are slightly higher than street dope, but as much so for experience and environment as the higher grade product. But Walsh maintained that dynamic will evaporate with legalization. “Just as soon as the THC level is regulated like the alcohol content in beer is, the street dealers will offer higher grades,” he said.
While the acolytes of all things weed at the convention made a powerful case for a final, clear legalization of cannabis, Walsh offered a clear-eyed, full-throated argument against it. Citing the linear trajectory of legislation like Prop. 215 in 1996 and SB420 in 2003 (yes, that’s Senate Bill 420), Walsh ticks off what he sees as the cynical mass gaming of laws that were ostensibly passed to offer terminal AIDS and cancer patients some limited legal shelter if they wanted to use pot in their twilight days.
But now, Walsh said, some dealers have store fronts throughout LA that sell dope to tens of thousands of “patients” and the wholesale supply chain remains shrouded in, at least publicly, smoke. It has been a rapid erosion, Walsh said, abetted by cowardice that courses through City Hall, the Kenneth Hahn building and on to Sacramento and Washington D.C.
“The politicians are afraid to take a stand,” Walsh said. “They are afraid to pick a fight.”
That might come as a darkly rich 90-point headline to many of the potheads cruising the LA Convention Center, who described dispensaries being shut down almost as fast they open up and with the city prepared to whack out the vast majority of existing dispensaries.
But Walsh insists that a relentless game of semantical gymnastics and a tainted if not blind eye to widespread abuse has brought Los Angeles—and the state—to the precipice.
Oddly, Walsh’s ultimate assessment seemed shared by many at the convention.
Though they insisted the laws are indeed helping people battle a myriad of ailments with a long-suppressed remedy, they too seemed to see the convention as a sign that the societal floodgates are creaking.
And there was a giddiness that they are about to break.
“This is about culture, not consumption,” Buj said.
Perhaps and Gates and Herer, if they were on that cloud looking down, might at least agree on that.
This article was first published in the LA Weekly.