Author’s note:

On December 9, 2010 OurWeekly ran a cover story on the medical marijuana industry in South Los Angeles with a focus on African American dispensaries. There has been a marked increase of new medical marijuana clinics and clubs in the community since that article published. This may appear at odds with an ordinance approved by the Los Angeles City Council to shut down hundreds of medical marijuana dispensaries and impose strict rules on the operation and locations of these cannabis clubs, shops and collectives. The ordinance capped the number of dispensaries at 70 (with the exception of those registered with the city prior to 2007). At press time, hundreds of new establishments have opened in the city since the passing of that ordinance. In anticipation of April 20, or “420” widely recognized as the Smoker’s Holiday, OW decided to take another look into the budding industry.

BREAKING BUDS

The American crime drama Breaking Bad created and produced by Vince Gilligan depicts the main character, actor Bryan Cranston, as high school chemistry teacher Walter White, who uses his knowledge of physical science to produce crystal methamphetamine, or crystal meth as it’s more commonly called. White can be best described as an “American citizen gone bad” according to a recent article in TV Guide.

In the last episode of the crime drama (episode #62) White dies of a gunshot wound fired from his remotely controlled MacGyver-esque machine gun, which he designed to inflict revenge on a gang of neo-Nazis that double-crossed him.

Initially, the crime drama encourages the television audience to believe White’s drug transactions were for the sole purpose of creating a nest egg for his family before he succumbs to lung cancer. However, White’s persona as the “family protector” is diminished later when he admits that his life as a drug manufacturer was for himself, stating that “he did it because he enjoyed it, was good at it, and it made him feel alive.”

Charles Byrd believes he was dealt the same deck of cards as Walter White. He was a science teacher until he lost his job after the private charter school where he taught was shutdown; he would have needed additional education to get work with a public school district. Although circumstances differ, this created a financial hardship similar to what Breaking Bad’s anti-hero endured.

Byrd has a son with Sickle Cell, as opposed to cerebral palsy, the disorder White’s fictional son suffered from. He also has a baby on the way and has prostate cancer.

“Although it’s not fatal…I’m not dying of cancer like White, but it is scary,” he said.

Byrd felt he had to take a gamble when the cards appeared to be stacked against him. “Oh yeah,” Byrd says with a smile, “Walter White’s stress level is probably experienced by most African American males everyday.”

A close relative suggested that Byrd open a medicinal marijuana dispensary.

Byrd believes he is an advocate for people of color; not just some common drug dealer trying to make money.

His first introduction to medicinal marijuana was in the early ‘60s. His grandmother would prepare a solution of green alcohol and marijuana to be used as a topical analgesic. “I remember my brother wondering if he could remove the marijuana leaves from the jar, dry them, and roll a joint,” he recalled. “My friend said no, he had tried it with his grandfather’s supply and it didn’t work.”

Byrd says when he is asked about his profession he doesn’t divulge that information because he feels somewhat embarrassed. He will discuss what he does for a living with cancer patients or people in the medical field but not your average Joe-blow.

“I believe we as African Americans see clinic owners as drug dealers,” he explained. “I don’t want to be kidnapped or suffer a ‘jack move’ or a robbery that many drug dealers experience.”

The most embarrassing incident Byrd can remember was while making a cash deposit at a bank. The teller looked at him and said “one moment sir,” then summoned her manager.

“The manager asked me to step down to the last window away from the teller line and I did. I just thought this was routine due to the amount of money I had.” Byrd was informed by the manager that it wasn’t the amount of money that was the issue, it was the pungent scent of marijuana.

“I informed her that I owned a medicinal marijuana clinic and she told me ‘off-the-record’ that I should spray the money with something perfumed to mask the odor because banks are uneasy about accepting proceeds from medical marijuana. The worry is that they might lose their charter since selling medicinal marijuana is a federal offense, and the federal government regulates banks.”

The bank manager was referring to banks’ reluctance to provide traditional services to marijuana businesses, according to Attorney Bruce Margolin, director of the Los Angeles National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). They fear that federal regulators and law enforcement authorities might punish them, with measures like large fines, for violating prohibitions on money-laundering, among other federal laws and regulations.

“Banking is the most urgent issue facing the legal cannabis industry today,” said Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association in Washington, D.C. Believing that legal marijuana sales in the United States could reach $3 billion this year, Smith added, “So much money floating around outside the banking system is not safe, and it is not in anyone’s interest. Federal law needs to be harmonized with state laws.”

Byrd believes the policy banks have towards the marijuana clinics have created security risks for legal marijuana business owners making it more difficult for them to safely handle their cash.

Byrd’s problem isn’t unique. Many marijuana clinic owners are forced to pay employees with envelopes of cash. They transport duffel bags containing thousands of dollars in $10 and $20 bills to supermarkets to buy money orders. In some cases they are forced to open bank accounts under false pretenses, and if that doesn’t work, these business owners are pushed to think “outside of the box” sometimes storing money in Tupperware containers filled with air freshener to mask the smell of the marijuana.

SECURITY

From the beginning, Byrd worried that operating a clinic in the ‘hood would be stressful due to security, and it has been.

The all-cash nature of the business has created huge security concerns for business owners. Many have installed panic buttons for workers in the event of a robbery and have set up a plethora of surveillance cameras at their clinics, as well as floor sensors to detect break-ins.

A few of the clinics OurWeekly was able to gain access to all had different types of security, reminiscent of South Los Angeles pawn shops.

The most elaborately secured facility had three different rooms patients had to enter prior to gaining access to the actual clinic. The first room was the entrance, which could be best described as a lobby without furniture. Patients are greeted by a one-way mirror and interior cameras positioned to capture every angle of their face. An unseen staff member asked “how can I help you?” while a burly, emotionless, security guard stood watch against the wall.

Once you state your business, you are buzzed into an adjacent room where you are asked to present identification and your membership card to a receptionist positioned behind bullet-proof glass. Once the receptionist verifies your membership, you are buzzed into what can best be described as a holding tank. This room is used for crowd control. Only a certain amount of members are allowed in the clinic at one time.

Upon entering the clinic, which resembled a cigar lounge, the smell of marijuana resin was very strong. Two large flat-screen televisions were mounted on the wall, and a couple of large chesterfield sofas were arranged to look like a classic gentleman’s lounge. It is rumored that this particular clinic is owned by a retired Los Angeles Police Department officer, who is currently in the process of opening a new clinic near the University of Southern California…more on this later.

WHY GO LEGAL?

Regardless of what seemed to be a relatively simple process, there are several factors that might make an individual feel more comfortable purchasing marijuana from a drug dealer as opposed to a licensed medical clinic. According to an anonymous marijuana smoker, the relationship an individual might have with the dealer (long-term friend or family), or an uneasiness about having documentation that they use marijuana is a deterrent. Especially in the cases of peace officers or defense contractors.

Medicinal marijuana patients believe the advantage to having a membership is the ability to purchase a product in a safe environment; all packages are weighed and verified (illegal pot is prepackaged), and variety, with many clinics carrying up to 50 strains.

Most clinics carry “top shelf,” a product far superior to “street weed,” and most importantly, there isn’t a big difference in price. This however, may be a geographical phenomena as it was found that in some states, illegal weed was cheaper.

THE BUSINESS END

The burning question: Where does all this weed come from?

To answer that question, another anonymous interviewee, who we will refer to as Mr. 99, unfolded a brown document embossed with a government seal and pointed to the a line that said “99 plants.” He explained that this is the amount that he can legally own through his doctor’s recommendation, or “rec” for short. He plans to cultivate these plants and sell them to medicinal marijuana dispensaries.

“Mr. 99” explained that to combat the somewhat undesirable soil composition and chemical elements in city soil, he uses hydroponics, a form of cultivation that allows him to control the chemistry and pH of plants. It was once a lucrative business until the “big guys” in Humboldt, Calif., came down and started discounting product by an average of $300 per pound. It knocked a lot of African American growers out of the business. Now a lot of the hydroponic weed goes to the black market.

“After being robbed a couple of times, vendors now require you to come to them,” explained Mr. 99. “Believe me, after dealing with brothers from Oakland and San Francisco the compounds are fortified. The Humboldt warehouses remind you of a government facility that houses nuclear warheads; something you would see in a movie.”

Byrd believes banks will start to cooperate with clinics to capitalize on revenue and says they are already involved, citing the recent scandal involving HSBC bank.

Byrd is referring to an incident that involved HSBC admitting to laundering billions of dollars for Colombian and Mexican drug cartels (among others) and violating a host of important banking laws (from the Bank Secrecy Act to the Trading With the Enemy Act). The United States Justice Department elected not to pursue criminal prosecutions of the bank, opting instead for a “record” financial settlement of $1.9 billion, which as one analyst noted “is about five weeks of income for the bank.” Many university economists believe that fully prosecuting the banks would have destabilized the United States economy.

“That is the way the system works. When you look at the arrest records, African Americans and Latinos are the ones that are being busted,” argued Byrd. “However, if you look at who is making millions in this industry, it is the Ivy Leaguers that are forming corporations dealing with medicinal marijuana. These clinics on Western Ave. are making maybe a measly $5,000 per day and when you look at overhead and taxes, that isn’t a lot in comparison to what some of the White boys are making in Denver. We get busted and do the time and when it becomes legal we are excluded.”

Byrd went on to say that there are so many clinics in the ‘hood because there are so many felons in the ‘hood, and no jobs in the ‘hood. But ex-felons can participate in the industry legally.

“You can operate a private club. Your criminal history does not affect your eligibility to get a doctor’s recommendation to become a medical marijuana patient, thus, you may cultivate and distribute medicine to the patients in your private collective. But, if the terms of your probation or parole do not permit you to possess anything that is federally illegal, you cannot do business. You need to go and see the judge who issued your probation or parole and speak with them in regards to it. If you are planning on running a dispensary then you must have a clean record; however, in the words of the late Ike Turner, ‘If there is a will, there is a way baby.’”