Dec 6, 2013
Marijuana Delivery Services Evade Bans on Dispensaries
Posted on Jun 6, 2010
By Gary Cohn and Michael Montgomery, California Watch
Editor’s note: This report was produced by California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting.
A flourishing and unregulated industry of pot delivery services is circumventing bans on storefront dispensaries and bringing medical marijuana directly to people’s homes, offices and more unconventional locations across the state, records and interviews show.
The unfettered delivery of marijuana through hundreds of these services highlights how quickly California’s fabled pot industry is moving from the shadows and into uncharted legal territory. These new couriers include enterprising farmers, business entrepreneurs and even a former Los Angeles pot dealer methodically switching her former clients to legal patients.
In newspapers and on the Internet, hundreds of “mobile dispensaries” advertise a wide range of strains and other products, such as brownies and cookies laced with THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. One service delivers organic vegetables along with medical marijuana, as part of a “farm-direct” service.
Some operate in multiple counties, including jurisdictions where storefront dispensaries are banned, or make local deliveries to drop-off points, such as Starbucks parking lots and gas stations. At least three ship to clients around the state using private prescription-drug couriers.
And these businesses could increase in popularity if voters approve an initiative on the November ballot that would legalize pot possession.
“They’re delivering the product better, cheaper, more discretely and probably at a higher profit rate than dispensaries,” said Allen St. Pierre, director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, which advocates legalization. “These delivery services are starting to grab more and more market share.”
A question remains on whether these services are legal. Some local and federal officials say delivery services violate the 1996 Compassionate Use Act that legalized medical marijuana in California for qualified patients, as well as other laws. The services are viewed as a way to circumvent local regulations clearly banning dispensaries.
“They’re transporting drugs,” said Tommy LaNeir, director of the National Marijuana Initiative, which is funded through the White House’s drug policy office. “It’s a trans-shipment operation that’s trying to bypass the ordinances that have been set up by cities and counties. It’s as simple as that.”
The exact number of delivery services operating in California is unclear, since the state does not keep a registry of medical marijuana distributors or outlets. In April, 758 services advertised direct delivery of marijuana to patients on Weedmaps.com, a commercial listing service.
Those numbers have nearly tripled in the past 18 months and grown by 39 percent since February, as more counties and cities began regulating storefront dispensaries or banning them outright, according to Justin Hartfield, owner of Weedmaps.com.
More than half the couriers who advertised in April said they were located in the Los Angeles region. Other services clustered around metropolitan regions, such as San Francisco, San Diego and Sacramento—with most regions experiencing steady growth. The number of couriers advertising within L.A. has jumped from 110 to 161 since February. San Diego saw an increase from 68 to 101 over the same period.
A total of 129 cities and nine counties in California have all banned medical marijuana dispensaries. An additional 96 cities and 13 counties have moratoriums, according to Americans for Safe Access. Yet, in many of these “dry” communities, pot delivery services appear to be flourishing. The number of couriers advertising in Riverside County, for instance, has increased from 76 to 105 since February.
For the state, the trend has caught officials flat-footed and unable to pinpoint any legal guidelines that directly address the delivery of medical marijuana by courier or mail. It’s clear that sending drugs through the postal service and cultivating pot for sale violates U.S. law, but most marijuana growers know federal prosecutions are rare these days.
“Delivery services are a relatively new creature, one that has not been directly addressed by the courts or in legislation,” said Peter Krause, a California deputy attorney general who helped write the state’s landmark guidelines on medical marijuana in 2008.
The state’s 1996 initiative and a companion law approved by the Legislature in 2003 granted cities and counties most of the authority over implementing the Compassionate Use Act. But no city council or board of supervisors has explicitly outlawed or legalized delivery services, according to Americans for Safe Access.
Senate Bill 420—signed into law by former Gov. Gray Davis during his final weeks in office—appears to protect individual patients from prosecution for “possession, transportation, delivery, or cultivation of medical marijuana” under legal limits. The law also allows patients and their primary caregivers to “associate” with each other to “collectively or cooperatively” cultivate pot for medical purposes.
To some law enforcement officials, the law is unambiguous. John Hall, a spokesman for the Riverside County district attorney’s office, said the county has banned storefront dispensaries and that delivery services are prohibited, although he could not site a specific law or regulation on the subject.
“It is the position of this office that based on current law, all mobile medical marijuana operations are illegal,” Hall said. “That would include those that may be based in Riverside County as well as any which may be based elsewhere and come into the county to attempt to do business.”
Hall said the Riverside district attorney’s position is based on a September 2006 legal analysis written by the DA’s office that concluded “medical marijuana is not legal under federal law, despite the current California scheme.” The white paper is silent on the subject of delivery services, but concluded that storefront cooperatives and dispensaries are illegal.
Other law enforcement officials said California law clearly does not allow the distribution of medical marijuana to hundreds of people by a service or any single person.
“I don’t see anything that suggests that when voters passed the Compassionate Use Act, they envisioned [marijuana] delivery services,” said Joseph Esposito, head of narcotics for the Los Angeles district attorney’s office.
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