Elevating the Debate
When will medical marijuana get the high sign in Monterey County?
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Tall, freckle-faced Daniel Maniscalco swings open the door of his black 1992 BMW and the pungent aroma of fresh Grapefruit Kush and Purple Haze fills the air.
Maniscalco, 26, runs a fledgling medicinal marijuana delivery service called Monterey Bay Alternative Agriculture, and this neatly kept compact car is his mobile office. On most days, he’s on call, iPhone at the ready, or on the road, hauling green pain relief to customers from Big Sur to Prunedale.
A couple of months ago, Maniscalco hung out a virtual shingle on Craigslist and has gathered a handful of clients, including a stay-at-home mom in Prunedale, a Monterey college student and 20-something father in Pacific Grove.
But Maniscalco, a Pacific Grove High grad, dreams of getting off the road and opening Monterey County’s first medical pot storefront.
“I want to provide medical marijuana patients the medicines their doctors recommend,” he says. Even though Californians with recommendations from their doctors have a legal right to use the stuff, many in the county have to travel miles to get it.
Maniscalco is one of hundreds of newly minted entrepreneurs hoping to join California’s green gold rush. Proposition 215 made medical pot legal in 1996. But dispensaries have sprung up like, well, weeds, since the Obama administration announced this year that it would no longer prosecute medical marijuana users and sellers who abide by state laws.
California requires medical marijuana facilities to be nonprofit organizations, but they still make boatloads of money – as much as $10,000 a day according to Bob Calkins, who runs a how-to course for would-be marijuana millionaires at his Cannabis Career Institute in Los Angeles, where Maniscalco picked up the basics of the trade a couple of months ago.
The Bay Area’s Oaksterdam University, which offers a more comprehensive 13-week course in the history, sale and cultivation of marijuana, is also turning out hundreds of graduates eager to try their hands at growing the herb, distributing it or cooking up pot-laced brownies and cheesecakes while cities and counties scramble to determine how best to handle the growing industry.
In Monterey County, Seaside and Marina have banned pot dispensaries, while Salinas has placed a moratorium on them. Neither the county government nor Monterey County’s other cities have any rules in place on how to govern cannabis clubs.
Maniscalco has had his sights on Sand City where, at an early November City Council meeting, he rose to the podium to deliver an attention-grabbing declaration: “I’m Daniel Maniscalco, and I want to open a medical marijuana dispensary in your town.”
“GOD MADE GRASS, MAN MADE BOOZE – WHO DO YOU TRUST?”
Maniscalco shared the spotlight that night with a pack of local Cub Scouts who picked up honors for their beach clean-up efforts. Maniscalco says he felt a bit uneasy discussing medical pot in a roomful of school-aged children, but he is so clean-cut, polite and confident in the righteousness of his mission that he could pass for an Eagle Scout, or a troop leader, himself. He says he wants to run a by-the-book operation that would dispense medical marijuana under 24-hour guard and in keeping with state law. What’s more, he says he’s already cut prices in the nonprofit spirit.
Sand City Mayor David Pendergrass and the City Council were unimpressed. Within two weeks, they’d proposed an emergency 45-day moratorium on pot clubs in the city, and voted unanimously to shut Maniscalco out – at least for the time being.
“I personally told him, under no uncertain terms, I would not allow it,” Pendergrass says. “I put it on the agenda because I don’t want it in the city.”
Local news cameras immediately descended on Sand City. Although Maniscalco is a political novice with only a high school education, he appeared calm and unflappable, telling a reporter: “The mayor – he’s not too friendly about this and is not supportive at all, so I’m really hoping [for] some more support from other patients. If I just open his mind a little bit, it’ll make me feel better.”
Ever since Maniscalco began to grow into his 6-foot-2-inch frame at 13, he has suffered from back pain. It has been so severe that he recalls dragging himself to local hospitals, barely able to walk. For years doctors prescribed Vicodin and Valium, and even Oxycontin – heroin in a pill, as his father, David, calls it.
“They made me feel nauseous and laid me out, and made me incapable of functioning,” Maniscalco says. For years, he’d smoked pot occasionally to relieve the pain, but six months ago, he got a doctor’s recommendation, and now, he often wakes to a cup of marijuana tea – equal parts weed and black tea with lots of cream and sugar – in the morning and smokes as needed throughout the day. “I haven’t experienced a spasm in my back since I’ve been taking it.”
But Maniscalco hadn’t thought of a career in pot until his father called one day last spring. The elder Maniscalco was at home on his Arizona ranch when a CNN program, blaring from a big screen TV in the background, caught his ear.
“The federal government was no longer going to waste my tax dollars” by prosecuting medical marijuana buyers and sellers who follow state law, Maniscalco’s dad says. Cartoon-like, a light bulb popped on in his head. More people would use marijuana, making dispensaries cash cows that could provide his son the things his father wanted for him – property and the means to raise a family. Plus, he thought, this was a cause Daniel could believe in, and he was right.
Maniscalco thought his dad was onto something. He plunked down $250 and headed south to Calkin’s Cannabis Career Institute’s weekend seminar in L.A., where students ranged from 18 to 70. The crash course offers business basics as well as tips on growing and baking, and navigating the still-uncharted legal and regulatory waters in many California cities.
Entrepreneurship was something Maniscalco had never considered. When he was younger, he thought he might be a firefighter or a bus driver. “I always wanted to be everything,” he says. As an adult, he taught at his grandmother’s pre-school in Marina, worked for his father, and served as houseparent for a half-dozen troubled kids at a Prunedale group home. Between jobs, he’d take off for months at a time to travel the world, hostelling through Europe and Australia. But these days, he has a newfound focus.
On a recent sunny Wednesday afternoon, Maniscalco, in polo shirt and shorts, is at the wheel of his Beemer, with the tools of his trade neatly stowed in the trunk. He is fresh from a run to Pacific Grove, where he exchanged a fourth of an ounce for $85 plus $7.40 in sales tax he’ll send off to the state of California.
Maniscalco has immersed himself in a new world of business registrations, taxes and regulation. Although he pilots his car as if a DMV examiner were riding shotgun, in his line of work, Maniscalco still lives on the edge. If he got pulled over, he would have some explaining to do, given the pervasive odor inside his vehicle. No problem, Maniscalco says. “If they’re going to take me in, they’re going to take me in… I’m not doing anything illegal.” By law, he can carry eight ounces for each of his customers, or “patients,” in the language of the law. That’s five pounds, or more than $25,000 worth of marijuana.
He carries a metal case that opens to reveal several dozen plastic baggies, each with a neatly printed warning label: “For Medical Use Only. California Health and Safety Code 11362.5.” On this day, Maniscalco carries Blue Himalayan, a calming cannabis indica, and an energizing sativa called Purple Haze. The names of the various strains of Maniscalco’s pot, which seem to have time-traveled from the 1960s, along with the smell of the stuff, make for a surreal scene.
But for Maniscalco, it’s all in a day’s work. He explains that Purple Haze, Blue Himalayan and other strains each contain different levels of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, so that a user can pick one that fits her needs. He’s weighed each $40 packet using a small digital scale – purchased at a local smoke shop – that’s accurate down to a tenth of a gram.
His two-month-old start-up is barely paying for itself, but Calkins of the Cannabis Career Institute says he tells students with delivery services like Maniscalco’s to aim for $500 to $1,000 a day in sales.
“You’re shooting for maximizing those interactions,” he says, adding that business-wise, selling medical marijuana is no different from peddling shoes: “It could be any other product. It’s all about customer relations. It’s all about creating a brand and marketing that brand.” The market is growing, especially among aging baby boomers, says Calkins, because many of them are familiar with the recreational aspects of marijuana and are open to its pain-relieving possibilities.
Calkins, 46, who runs his own delivery service, is a role model for Maniscalco. He’s the kind of guy who will move a heavy box for a cancer patient, Maniscalco says, or pick up a loaf of bread for a house-bound customer.
On the phone from Los Angeles, Calkins takes a long gurgling pause to inhale. Yeah, he says, in a hoarse croaking voice, he’s sampling the product as he talks. Calkins began to research how to run a legal pot business, and to teach others how it’s done after years working underground. He began selling pot in the 1980s, years before it was legalized for medicinal use, to help break into the music business with his band, Rude Awakening, which ended its more than 20-year run last July. “I figure I’m going to get to know everyone in the record industry – just go infiltrate.”
Today, Calkins is at the forefront of California’s burgeoning canna-business. The state Board of Equalization estimates that $200 million in medical marijuana was sold last year, bringing $18 million in sales tax to government coffers. Profits from dispensaries, training courses and grow operations fuel activism in the courts and at all levels of government, including a growing push for marijuana legalization, says Richard Lee, who runs Oaksterdam University.
Lee reports that he has gathered nearly 700,000 signatures – more than enough to qualify to put his Tax Cannabis 2010 initiative on the November ballot. He’s hired self-described Internet hellraisers, Watershed, a San Francisco-based consulting firm, to build his war chest and plans to spend up to $20 million on the campaign. The state legislative analyst estimates passage of the initiative would mean tens of millions of dollars in savings for local and state government in incarceration and parole and probation costs, and potentially huge tax receipts at a time when the cash-strapped state badly needs revenue.
In Oakland, the proprietors of the city’s medical marijuana dispensaries spearheaded a push for a 1.8 percent municipal pot tax, which was approved by voters last July. It’s expected to raise $300,000 for the city next year.
But none of this activity has convinced tiny Sand City to roll out the municipal welcome mat for the dispensary Maniscalco envisions.
He has his eye on a neighborhood sandwiched between a strip of beachfront homes and a jumble of warehouses, shops, and small factories near the Sand City police department. A California bungalow on Orange Street is just what Maniscalco has in mind. Ideally, he’d carve out a living space above the storefront, with 24-hour security, where clients could enter an intake area, show medical marijuana ID, and proceed to a homey shop to browse all manner of smokable pot, teas and edibles like butter, honey and baked goods, along with THC-rich oils and lotions.
Mayor Pendergrass, a retired Army employee who has led Sand City for 31 years, says he thought it might only be a matter of time before medical pot dispensaries came calling, but emphasizes, “The city is not a pushover.” On the night of the moratorium vote, Pendergrass got support from Sand City residents who said “not in our town,” and an earful from first-time-ever patient activists like Tammy Jennings.
“I’ve been a law-abiding, taxpaying, worked-my-whole-life person,” says Jennings, a 50-year-old former office manager who lives in Monterey. She recalls choking up with emotion as she told council members she was tired of feeling like an outcast and a “dope fiend” because she uses marijuana to ease the symptoms of multiple sclerosis. Marijuana calms her leg spasms and helps her sleep, but she says she can’t always make the 45-minute drive to Santa Cruz to get it. “Sometimes my legs aren’t working and it isn’t safe to drive, but that’s when I need the medicine to relax the muscles in my legs,” she says. “Part of me feels like I’m doing something wrong, but I have to do it to survive.”
Jennings came to the meeting with Carrieanna Hess, a 27-year-old grad student specializing in vocational rehabilitation, who found out she had multiple sclerosis five years ago when she was a CSUMB undergrad. At her small Monterey bungalow, Hess clutches a cobalt blue bong, her light brown shoulder-length hair falling into her face as she takes a long drag.
“Being diagnosed with MS is a huge emotional loss,” Hess says. “There were times when I wanted to kill myself, and I know a lot of people with MS who feel the same way. It’s just – why did this happen to me? How am I going to handle this? I can’t go and walk down the street and get an ice cream cone anymore.”
Hess says pot brings her anxiety down and helps her look at life differently. “Sometimes if you smoke a sativa, you get giggly,” she says. “You know, laughter is the best medicine.”
Not only that, Hess says, but she can smoke, and still get on with her life – unlike when she took the laundry list of pharmaceuticals her doctors prescribed for pain, sleeplessness and depression. “God made grass, man made booze – who do you trust?” Hess queries with a mischievous glint in her eye. “That’s what I should have said to [the Sand City Council].”
“Your heart has to pour out for those who spoke,” says Don Orosco, whose Orosco Group developed the Target shopping plaza and owns a lot of Sand City property. “But I don’t think it’s something the community needs. There could be potential abuses.” He adds that it wouldn’t be fair to the nearby cities of Seaside and Marina, both of which have banned dispensaries.
Orosco, who lives in Carmel, had joined several dozen Sand City dwellers on a chilly Friday night, many of them clutching cups of cocoa and keeping an eye on small children as Santa Claus arrived on a fire truck to light a tall skinny cypress tree next to city hall.
Just before leading the crowd in a spirited rendition of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, City Councilman Craig Hubler added that he’d worry about a medical marijuana facility bringing crime to the community.
Medical marijuana opponents like the California Police Chiefs Association point to dispensaries – cash business with rich profits and a high resale value product – as easy targets for armed robberies and burglaries. And with doctors’ recommendations for pot arguably easier to score than flu shots, dispensary opponents argue that they are hang-outs for unsavory recreational pot-heads.
Ahead of a Dec. 15 vote, in which the City Council extended the temporary ban for a year, city officials polled residents on the medical pot question.
Libby Sofer echoed the sentiments of many when she suggested that Maniscalco establish his dispensary in Monterey’s Ryan Ranch, along with the area’s many other medical facilities. But Monterey City Manager Fred Meurer says he’s not welcome. Pot dispensaries aren’t permitted under the city’s zoning laws.
Still, Maniscalco is preparing the ground – literally – for the day when his dispensary finds a home. On a recent Wednesday, he headed for the rolling hills of North County, where a 34-year-old mom is tending his first crop of 12 seedlings in exchange for the marijuana she uses for pain associated with Raynaud’s disease, a rare disorder that constricts blood flow to her hands and feet.
As he heads up a narrow gravel road to her property, Maniscalco says, “This is highly classified. It’s definitely not normal business practice for a grower to show someone where their grow site is.” If word gets out, poachers and thieves, or thrill-seeking high school kids, could make off with the profits.
Ellen (not her real name) is waiting outside the battered mobile home she shares with her husband, two daughters, a cat and a 17-year old green Macaw parrot, JJ, who is just learning to talk. She is rail-thin with long reddish hair and a soft, high-pitched voice. She leads Daniel behind the house to the shed where a dozen tender green shoots – the tallest is about 8 inches high – bask in the glow of a light specially designed to mimic the sun’s rays. If all goes well, the plants will begin to flower in four weeks. A month after that, Maniscalco could harvest as much as four and a half pounds, worth more than $20,000.
With local cities slamming doors in his face, Maniscalco is considering a guerrilla-style move into Monterey. He would rent a storefront, and challenge city officials to take him to court if they want him out. A similar battle is underway in Gilroy, where a Santa Clara County judge this week rejected the city’s request for a preliminary injunction against a rogue dispensary, MediLeaf, that opened without a permit.
Meantime, many municipal eyes are fixed on the Fourth District California Court of Appeals, which is set to decide in less than a week whether the city of Anaheim was within its rights when it permanently banned medical marijuana dispensaries. “It’s fair to say that cities are watching very closely,” says former Napa City Attorney Tom Brown, of the San Francisco law firm Hanson and Bridgett, which represents a number of cities in land use and other matters.
“We’re pretty confident,” says Joe Elford, chief counsel for Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group. The state law was passed to allow pot clubs to operate and to apply the law uniformly across the state, Elford says. “If you have a bunch of localities in Southern California that ban dispensaries, and they’re allowed to operate in Northern California, it seems that that offends both of those purposes, and that’s why we’re confident the court will rule with us.”
If the court finds Anaheim’s ban illegal, more than 100 California cities with moratoria or bans on medical marijuana facilities could be forced to change course and allow them to operate.
“It’s an issue,” says James Heisinger, Sand City’s attorney. “My recommendation is to continue the temporary ban until people can better understand the rules. Sand City doesn’t have the resources to be the lead horse on this.”
As for Maniscalco, he promises he’ll likely move on to another Monterey County city – this time with a lawyer by his side so, as he says, he won’t be viewed as just a 26-year old opportunist who wants to sell pot. “This is my legal right,” he says. “I’m going to fight this in court, and I’m going to win.”