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Within the law, under the radar 

Medical marijuana dispensaries are banned everywhere in SLO County; a few delivery services quietly bring relief to local patients

click to enlarge BATTLE SCARS :  Robert Davis has had 25 skin-cancer surgeries over the past four years and he has the scars to prove it. He also suffers from lymphoma and smokes marijuana to counteract his lost appetite. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • BATTLE SCARS : Robert Davis has had 25 skin-cancer surgeries over the past four years and he has the scars to prove it. He also suffers from lymphoma and smokes marijuana to counteract his lost appetite.

Rich looks like comedian Ron White—if someone wrapped him in an “Oaksterdam” T-shirt. He asked not to have his full name published in this story. Why? Rich founded Cannafornia Health Services earlier this year, one of a handful of medical marijuana delivery services in SLO County. Such services are now one of the only ways for patients to obtain medical marijuana in SLO County because brick-and-mortar dispensaries are forbidden in any incorporated city and the risk of law-enforcement crackdowns deters setting up dispensaries in unincorporated areas.

Rich is nervous. He’s nervous for himself, and he’s nervous for his family, even if he sometimes brushes aside the risks that come with his line of work.

There was the time he got a suspicious call about setting up an exchange that would have gone beyond the legal boundaries of medical-marijuana laws—he didn’t go through with it. Then there was the time he got a call from a couple of guys he believed were setting him up for a robbery—he avoided them. Such situations are common, he said. Another time he zigzagged off the highway onto urban streets to lose someone tailing him whom he believed was either a cop or someone looking to rob him. He still worries about being followed or pulled over and usually has his eyes glued to his car’s rearview mirrors.

New Times tagged along with Rich for a day of deliveries. He began the day at a small South County diner along with one of his drivers, who asked to go by L.C. She was short and thin, wearing an overly baggy shirt that dangled loosely across her shoulders. Sitting over a small breakfast and talking above the echoes of family chatter and clanging silverware, L.C. spent most of the morning hunched and rubbing her neck. She said she has chronic pain caused by a nearly severed vertebrae in her neck. Her brother died about two years ago after 15 years of taking many of the same pain medications L.C. also took. She blamed his death on those drugs.

“So here I am in the exact same shadow,” she said. L.C. switched to marijuana for her pain, which she said, not only worked, but helped her detox off fentanyl and OxyContin.

After breakfast, L.C. left and New Times headed out on the road with Rich. Despite medical marijuana’s pseudo-legal status in California, Rich sees the law as a mild protection from being arrested.

“It’s an illegal substance. You’re in possession of it,” he said while driving around SLO County in a large truck. He carried a small pizza box where he stored the marijuana for deliveries.

“It’s really not more that the anxiety goes away,” he said, “it’s that you get used to the anxiety.”

The service isn’t a business and makes no profit, Rich stressed; it’s a collective of patients and growers. He likes to call it a collective on wheels. Basically, Rich is boring for someone who deals with drugs—legal or otherwise.

Rich said he sees new delivery services start up every few weeks and disappear just as quickly. He believes most of the failed services lose interest because medical marijuana delivery isn’t as glamorous or profitable as the illegal variety. Another big blockade is that fledgling drivers can be careless and fudge the guidelines provided under medical-marijuana laws.

On Aug. 25, Bruce James Guerin was arrested in Santa Maria for possession of about 156 grams of marijuana “packaged for sales,” according to a Santa Maria Police Department news release. Guerin was the former operator of “Impressions,” another SLO County delivery service. Guerin could not be reached for comment and every number associated with his name was disconnected or somehow unreachable, except one: “Hi, this is James,” a recorded voice says on the outgoing message. “Thanks for calling. Sorry I couldn’t get back to everybody last week—unavoidable.”

The fear of arrest makes Rich utterly paranoid. He wears his seatbelt, drives with the flow of traffic, never plays music loudly, keeps the car clean, and always travels with a good-luck pair of aviator sunglasses and a ready supply of cigarettes. Rich is basically the square among his friends, even when he’s delivering pot throughout the county.

“Other people can do screwy stuff and get away with it,” Rich said from behind the wheel. “Me, if I do screwy stuff, I’m going to get arrested.” Screwy stuff means doing anything not spelled out in either the voter initiative Proposition 215, which decriminalized medical marijuana in California in 1996; or SB 420, which further clarified the initiative and spelled out how medical marijuana could be legally distributed. Rich said he abides by those tenuous laws because what he does isn’t recognized federally nor truly given carte blanche by local law enforcement.

Rich used to be a chemical dependency counselor. Before that, he worked in a mental hospital. He’s worked with abusive parents and their children; he’s worked as a high-school counselor. Rich said he’s seen the full spectrum of drug use and abuse. After a career spent witnessing the effects, he was clearly unsettled, particularly by people who treated patients with indifference. Almost certainly, the experiences inspired his latest endeavor.

In 2000, his friend George was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer: Ewing’s Sarcoma. George was barely eating, reeling from the effects of chemotherapy, and, as Rich tells it, mired in a morose state while facing his own certain death.

“So my buddy with cancer comes to me and says, ‘Hey. Can you get me some pot?’” Rich said. Although his friend had never smoked pot, Rich got it, gave it to his friend, but told him what to expect in a clinical manner, he said.

George took the drugs and then, surprisingly, he began laughing, got up, walked to the kitchen, and started eating yogurt, Rich said. George had barely eaten in almost a week.

“He told me, ‘You’re the best chemical dependency counselor,’” Rich laughed in a characteristic high-pitched giggle that bubbled up throughout his 11-hour ride with New Times. George married, Rich was best man in his wedding, and though George died shortly afterward, Rich was clearly thankful for the final lucid month and a half, which he credits fully to the drug.

After that experience, Rich felt strongly that marijuana didn’t deserve to be in the same legal category as heroin or methamphetamine, as federal law currently classifies it. Following the death of his friend, Rich attended the Oaksterdam University in Oakland, where he was schooled in the state’s medical marijuana laws and became certified to establish a collective.

“I kind of wanted his death to mean something,” Rich said.

click to enlarge NO MORE ROAD TRIPS :  Toni Paradis (left) used to drive her son Matt Green to Oakland to get his medical marijuana because there are no dispensaries in SLO County. Now, they rely on local delivery services to avoid long drives. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • NO MORE ROAD TRIPS : Toni Paradis (left) used to drive her son Matt Green to Oakland to get his medical marijuana because there are no dispensaries in SLO County. Now, they rely on local delivery services to avoid long drives.
No access

Among 20 coastal counties in California, SLO County is one of only four that have no medical marijuana dispensaries or other facilities where card-holding patients can obtain medical pot, according to California NORML, which tracks collectives by region. Monterey, Del Norte, and Ventura are the three others.

Every incorporated city within SLO County has some sort of ban on pot dispensaries. Morro Bay, where owner Charles Lynch’s dispensary was shut down by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency with the help of the SLO County Sheriff’s Department, instituted a ban in April. Atascadero then pinched off the last potential locations in incorporated cities. On Sept. 8, Atascadero City Council members unanimously voted to temporarily ban dispensaries from being permitted, leaving only the unincorporated areas of the county.

So what’s the fuss about? Combined, if all the people to whom SLO County granted permission to obtain and use medical marijuana still have active cards (the county doesn’t track how many people annually renew medical marijuana cards, only those who have been approved), there would be 200 patients as of this past August, according to the SLO County Health Agency.

Rich said his service delivers to more than 150 local patients. He rigorously verifies doctor recommendations and state identification cards for local patients. Most of his patients are older than 35, he said, and include such people as accountants, doctors, and at least one local law enforcement officer.

Statewide, there are only 34,258 people allowed to consume and share medical marijuana, according to the California Department of Public Health. If that entire medical marijuana community lived in SLO County, it would comprise about 13 percent of the population.

Former state senator John Vasconcellos, who wrote the state law, told New Times how he felt about raids of dispensaries and medical marijuana patients: “It’s such a silly waste of public funds and public attention and cruel—silly and cruel.”

County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Rob Bryn said profitable dispensaries encourage criminal activities. Regarding criticism of law enforcement raids, he said, “This is just such a joke, it’s pathetic.”

Indeed, SLO County may soon no longer be such an exception to marijuana dispensaries. Los Angeles County could easily be called the mecca of medical marijuana, with more dispensaries than anywhere else in the state, but that, too, is changing. Los Angeles County officials have begun shutting down the estimated hundreds of for-profit dispensaries, according to the district attorney’s office there. As of this printing, about a dozen dispensaries had been shut down in the area and officials were planning to eliminate every dispensary where medical marijuana is being distributed for profit. A spokeswoman for the D.A., Sandi Gibbons, said on Oct. 8 that law enforcement agents were preparing to go after all such dispensaries.

“It’s our contention and the contention of law enforcement that this is an illegal activity,” Gibbons told New Times.

Back on the road

“It sucks,” Robert Davis said, pointing to his various scars as though they were battle wounds. He pointed to a fading scar on his hand where doctors removed a chunk of cancerous skin. He had a dime-sized dent in his forehead from another surgery. The worst, he said, was a large patch taken out of his neck. The surgeons had to pull together and sew the remaining skin to cover the hole, but it left Davis’ neck so tight he couldn’t lift his head and had to slowly stretch the remaining skin. In all, he’s had 25 skin-cancer operations in the past four years.

Davis also has lymphoma, another form of cancer. A calendar on his wall is filled with doctor appointments.

Davis lives in an RV on a large lot in Los Osos where the property owner allows him to stay at reduced rent. In exchange, he cares for the owner’s horses. Davis survives mainly on Social Security and Medi-Cal, occasionally picking up part-time jobs, usually yard work. He can’t work fulltime because he’s sometimes too sick. In any event, he’d lose his Medi-Cal benefits if he did work fulltime, he said.

“I really do hate to be a crybaby,” he said with a face that said he wasn’t looking for pity.

Davis said he doesn’t drink. He smokes cigarettes, but he feels guilty for doing it and couldn’t quit. Rather than take such medications as OxyContin to counteract the chemotherapy he endures, he smokes marijuana. After his eight-hour chemo sessions, it takes about a month before he begins feeling the side effects.

“I don’t feel sick. I just feel more like I have nothing,” he said.

Perhaps the greatest benefit from marijuana is it gives Davis an appetite, he said. He appears meek and fragile, with a head of wilted blond hair. He said he’s 6 feet, 2 inches tall, but only weighs 160 pounds. At one point, he weighed as little as 150 pounds due to his illnesses. But smoking pot replenishes his appetite the chemo takes away, he said. He stood up excitedly and opened his cupboards to show off the junk food stashed throughout the RV: a trove of cookies, Cheetos, and other stereotypically stoner foods.

Davis obtained his medical marijuana card in 2006. He said he used to drive to San Francisco about twice a week for work, which is where he used to get marijuana because there are no local dispensaries. He can no longer afford to drive to San Francisco and now gets marijuana from Rich.

Davis made his career tending racehorses, a career he hopes to return to if he regains health. While visiting his sister in South Carolina years ago, he went to a race track. “And I was like, ‘Wow, that looks like fun.’” So he struck up a conversation with someone in the stables and was hired on the spot to help prepare horses for races. He moved to Florida and worked with racehorses, until he was diagnosed with cancer. He moved back to the Central Coast and now lives in his RV on a multi-million-dollar property overlooking coastal bluffs.

Outside the trailer a light breeze swirled through the brilliantly sunny afternoon. Horses trotted behind the RV, kicking up dust as they headed in the direction of the Pacific Ocean. The air smelled of seawater mixed with an earthy musk from wood chips that covered the ground. Davis said, all in all, it wasn’t a bad spot. That day, he told Rich, his doctors had just told him his lymphoma was shrinking and he would have a four-month break from chemo.

click to enlarge STILL FIGHTING :  Toni Paradis’ son Matt Green is confined to a wheelchair and smokes marijuana for medical purposes. Paradis said she’s had to fight for his right to get his medication and she’ll continue to fight as long as necessary. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • STILL FIGHTING : Toni Paradis’ son Matt Green is confined to a wheelchair and smokes marijuana for medical purposes. Paradis said she’s had to fight for his right to get his medication and she’ll continue to fight as long as necessary.
Matt’s story

Rich pulled onto the driveway of a house in Atascadero to make his second delivery of the day. There were about a half-dozen people inside, most of them lounging on a couch. A woman read a magazine while a cat nestled next to her; a young boy sat snacking on a peach. Shelves lined the walls of the kitchen, and were stuffed with homey trinkets like teapots and saucers, many of which were painted with corny phrases.

Matt Green’s face exploded in a gaping smile and he flailed his arms erratically when he saw Rich walk in.

“He’s happy,” Green’s mother, Toni Paradis, said to Rich. “Thank you.”

“Hey, I could tell he’s happy,” Rich said.

Green yelped incoherently due to a physical inability to speak clearly. He can’t stand up, either. He writhed violently in his wheelchair, often kicking his legs and contorting his arms in erratic, uncontrollable bursts. When Green was 20 months old, he nearly drowned in a pool while at daycare, leaving him a spastic quadriplegic, Paradis said. She had to speak for Green because he was in a coma for three months and when he awoke he “tore up” his tongue and now has a severe speech impediment that makes him almost incomprehensible to anyone unfamiliar with his vocal patterns. He went to school; graduated from college. “He’s quite intelligent,” Paradis said. But Green’s spasms can be so severe he’s knocked his own teeth out and he’s knocked Paradis’ teeth out. He hit her so hard one time it unhinged her jaw. His spasms can be so stressful they cause him to lose weight.

If ever there were a prime candidate for the legalization of medical marijuana, Green could be him. He proudly flaunted his black T-shirt emblazoned with a colorful illustration of a cannabis plant and laughed at the irony that his last name is Green. (Think marijuana and you’ll get it.)

Green began smoking marijuana in 2004 (his friends and family help him). His doctors had wanted him to take other drugs, but those could have severely damaged his liver, Paradis said. Green chose marijuana. Smoking it dulls his spasms to a manageable level.

“If you could see what it’s like when he has nothing versus when he actually has something,” Paradis lamented. But the stigma surrounding marijuana is sometimes hard to overcome. “It’s his right to take the kind of medication he needs that works for him. … I’ll fight for it as long as I possibly can.”

Before there was a delivery service, Paradis would drive Green to Oakland dispensaries at least twice per month. “And it’s a hard drive for him. It’s hard; we don’t like it.”

“No,” Matt said

When Paradis learned the Atascadero City Council was temporarily banning marijuana dispensaries within the city limits, she cut a barbecue short and went to the meeting with Green. No one from the public spoke in favor of a ban, but the council members voted unanimously to prohibit dispensaries from operating within city limits.

“They’ll look at Matt,” Paradis said of the council members. “Maybe have a bit of compassion for him. But they don’t want to talk about it.”

click to enlarge TAKE AS NEEDED :  Cannafornia Health Services is one of the few ways to obtain medical marijuana in SLO County. No incorporated cities allow dispensaries and even delivery services are hard to come by due to legal risks. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • TAKE AS NEEDED : Cannafornia Health Services is one of the few ways to obtain medical marijuana in SLO County. No incorporated cities allow dispensaries and even delivery services are hard to come by due to legal risks.
The end of a long day

In a cookie-cutter suburban house wedged within a few small blocks of nearly identical houses, Rich met with one of his new growers. The grower, Mike (he asked New Times not to use his real name), had just returned home from work and his hands were covered in dark gray blotches of grease.

Mike lives in a plain white-walled house in the Nipomo area, with one marijuana plant growing upstairs and two other plants in his backyard. Rich was there to give him two new baby plants. Upstairs, in the closet of a mostly bare room with just a red rubber exercise ball and a small metal clothes rack, Mike opened the closet door. A small fan blowing against a short, adolescent marijuana plant gently hummed. The plant sat in a white pot inside a homemade growing box cobbled together from PVC pipe and thick sheets of black plastic. The plant’s small leaves rustled lightly from the fan and glowed bright green under a single fluorescent tube. On the adjoining wall, Mike posted a photocopy of his medical marijuana card.

Rich left that house and headed west as sunrays peeked beneath thick blankets of coastal fog that slid over the South County coastline. He left New Times in the early evening, but said he was going on more deliveries. Earlier that day, he evaluated each delivery like this: “You think, ‘Am I gonna get robbed, killed, or arrested?’ Maybe all three. Or, am I gonna hear some sick person thank me a million times because I’m the only one who really helped them out?”

Staff Writer Colin Rigley can be reached at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

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