The vision of Marina as a medical-marijuana Nirvana has one big problem: a government unwilling to take the plunge.
Thursday, January 31, 2013
Marina residents Nobia Monsauret and Kevin Saunders have a dream that looks something like this:
The ramshackle barracks of the old Fort Ord – the ones that nobody has been able to knock down or clean up – are transformed into modern greenhouses where dozens (if not hundreds) of people work growing organic cannabis based on genetic strains Saunders has spent years perfecting.
At next-door CSU-Monterey Bay, there’s an actual degree offered in cultivation and cannabis-business operations; at nearby Monterey Peninsula College, students can take classes in cannabis cultivation. Somewhere in Marina – but nowhere near a school or a park – they open the retail location of the nonprofit Coasterdam Collective to serve the medical marijuana needs of patients all over Monterey County. The store has security wired into the Marina Police Department, but it’s a cafe-like atmosphere where patients bearing physician-issued prescriptions come and buy their tinctures and edibles, their concentrates and tablets, whatever paraphernalia they might need to smoke it or vaporize it. The patients can sit and read and chat, maybe grab a cup of coffee while they exchange ideas.
In addition to having city permits and paying sales taxes (because they’ve registered with the state Department of Equalization), Coasterdam donates 10 percent straight off the top to the city of Marina. Saunders limits his salary to that of the average city worker, and Monsauret, as president of the nonprofit, handles operations, outreach, advocacy and marketing.
It’s a dream that started in 2010 at a community meeting on SmartMeters, where Saunders first laid eyes on Monsauret. It’s a dream that propelled them both – she at age 52, he at 42 – to enroll at the Monterey College of Law and work on getting their degrees so they can do everything legally – and fight the battles that might have to be fought.
Those degrees might just come in handy. Because the road to Coasterdam? It’s going to be a bumpy one.
They’re facing a U.S. Attorney, the Ninth District’s Melinda Haag, who acts as if California never legalized marijuana for medicinal use and tees off against legally operating dispensaries every chance she gets. She just might sleep with a copy of the federal Controlled Substances Act under her pillow.
They’re facing a City Council that put a moratorium on dispensaries in 2007 and shows no signs of lifting it.
And they’re facing a police department whose chief says state court decisions on medical marijuana have been so unclear that law enforcement is given little choice but to follow federal law. (And, in one case, handcuff a cancer-surviving grandmother while forcing the lockdown of Pacific Grove Middle School, but more about that later.)
There’s also the small issue of that failed restraining order.
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To understand where Saunders and Monsauret want to go with the Coasterdam Cannabis Collective (which Monsauret registered as a nonprofit last September), you first have to understand where they came from. Monsauret’s a mother of four, a landscape contractor and a cancer survivor diagnosed with thyroid cancer at age 29 after giving birth to her second child. But she’s also a cancer widow; in 2010, her husband Charles Rennie Monsauret, a Vietnam veteran who was exposed to Agent Orange while serving in the brown-water Navy, died in her arms at the home they shared following a nearly five-year battle with colon cancer.
While he was ill, Rennie, a landscaper who emigrated to the U.S. from Holland while a teenager, would sometimes sit on the back patio of the house and tend to his marijuana plants.
“He had massive tumors, a massive tumor in his liver, and during the course of his treatment, the doctor got him on marinol,” a pill derived from cannabis, Monsauret says. “Within a year he had gained 10 pounds. He was always so thin, but with the cannabis, he was able to eat. He was able to keep weight on. And he became an advocate.”
Saunders’ story is in some ways less tragic, maybe in some ways, equally so. He grew up the son of an ex-Drug Enforcement Administration agent who (according to one circa-1970s documentary) claims he was enlisted to join a DEA hit squad targeting Latin American drug dealers. Saunders went to the University of Southern California (he’s three foreign-language credits away from getting his degree) and father and son eventually moved to Oregon. They bought a triplex and started growing marijuana together.
But things fell apart. The father, according to reports in a Lincoln City, Ore. newspaper, claimed in 2010 that his son tried to poison him. But it’s an allegation police found so unbelievable they didn’t investigate, and so unbelievable that a judge threw out a restraining order father took out against son. It was enough to derail Saunders’ 2010 campaign for mayor of Lincoln City – and brought him to Monterey, where his mother lives, and to Monsauret.
“I think we were both grieving the loss of something, and we bonded over that,” he says.
Saunders’ past, though, is nothing he cares to talk about. He’s all about the future. He tends a small number of plants for his personal use and talks excitedly about various strains he’s created, the genetics he’s worked with for years. One plant he shows has been over watered and it’s deep green leaves are droopy, but Saunders is confident a day in the sun will perk it back up.
He’s as confident that allowing dispensaries will perk up the county’s economy.
“I’m not asking anymore. It’s not going to be ‘Let’s wait until they get bored and go away,’” Saunders says. “If you align yourself against this sacred plant, you will find yourself losing elections and the support of a natural constituency.
“You cannot put this genie back in the bottle.”
If the genie is pot, and the bottle is conflicting laws that have police throwing up their hands and crying, “We’ll do it the fed way,” then the electeds are the Marina City Council – specifically Marina Mayor Bruce Delgado, with whom Saunders has been openly warring since November.
The night before the election, Saunders was to have debated Delgado and mayoral candidate Steve Emerson on the issue of pot dispensaries, but Delgado cancelled the event. Saunders took to his Facebook page, saying he would “knock (Delgado’s teeth down (his) throat” if he heard Delgado malign medical marijuana. It was enough that Delgado sought a restraining order against him.
A judge refused to give him one.
Delgado still doesn’t want to talk about it – or the possibility of lifting the moratorium.
“Unfortunately, this current situation is a public safety issue due to aggressive, threatening behavior, rather than a policy issue,” Delgado says via email. “I won’t comment in any detail until I and [the] police department agree we’re beyond the safety concerns we currently have. Sorry it’s not appropriate to discuss this more.”
It was a completely different City Council that enacted the Marina dispensary ban in 2007 (after enacting an emergency ordinance in 2006 after someone asked about opening one) although the names are still familiar to most. Conservative Mayor Ila Mettee-McCutchon and conservative Marina Gazette publisher Gary Wilmot were on the council, along with Dave McCall (conservative), Michael Morrison (whew boy, conservative)… you get the picture. They enacted the moratorium by saying dispensaries conflict with the city’s general plan for economic growth. Of course, that was in 2007 before the economy imploded; economic growth plans now might look entirely different – desperate, even.
But it’s going to take more than a change in the council’s political ideology to make the moratorium go away, says Marina Police Chief Eddie Rodriguez. It’s something he says he’s been trying for months to get across to Saunders.
“This is not about whether I the police chief or Mayor Delgado wants to allow or not allow this in the city. Where they need to focus is community support, because that will decide whether or not the residents want it,” Rodriguez says. “Mr. Saunders talks about the financial benefit, but that’s not what should drive the issue. It’s what’s best for the community, it’s not the dollars.”
Marina has a reputation of taking a hard-line stance against pot. Rodriguez, though, says different courts keep interpreting laws differently. One says x number of plants is considered legal for personal use, a higher court says no, it’s y. One court says cities can enact a ban, a higher court says, “No, they can’t,” as the state Supreme Court did on Jan. 16, when it ruled against the city of San Diego in saying storefront collectives are legal if they operate as nonprofits.
And next week, on Feb. 5, the state Supremes will take up two more cases that will decide whether cities have the right to ban dispensaries based on zoning laws.
They are rulings Saunders and Monsauret are anxiously awaiting.
“My objective is to stay within the parameters of the law, and to provide sustainable access to patients, including shut-ins and veterans, because you know what, Monterey County?” Monsauret says. “Our veterans deserve better. Our retired people deserve better.”
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Speaking of retired people, and shut-ins, what happens if you have a medical-marijuana prescription and there’s no collective or dispensary in your neighborhood? Your choices now are to trek to Santa Cruz, where dispensaries flourish – or have it delivered, which Rodriguez says is illegal.
“It is illegal to transport it and deliver it for sale,” Rodriguez says. “The folks that go around delivering it are committing a crime, and there’s been no change in the way the courts are interpreting that.”
That’s something one Peninsula family can talk about first hand.
Generations of Peninsula kids (and their parents) will probably know her better as Ms. Hopkins, the no-nonsense-but-gentle woman who for 30 years taught the three-Rs at various Pacific Grove schools, including Robert Down Elementary, P.G. Middle and Forest Grove Elementary. (As Weekly lead designer Brandl Tucker, who had Hopkins for fourth-grade science at Robert Down, put it: “She made science fun. You could tell she loved her job.” Says another whose children had Hopkins for the third grade at Forest Grove: “She’s the kind of person your kid could easily say was their favorite teacher.”)
Hopkins, now 62, is a breast cancer survivor; she declines to say when she was diagnosed, calling the episode too painful to discuss. In late 2011, her brother-in-law moved into her tidy little house down the street from P.G. Middle School because he could no longer take care of himself; he was dying of esophageal cancer.
Hopkins’ daughter Ash Hewitt says watching her uncle die slowly and painfully as her mother suffered the effects of chemotherapy were among the reasons she and her husband, Mike Meyers, decided to go into the medical-marijuana business. They registered 831 Delivers with the state Board of Equalization so they could pay sales taxes. They hired a twentysomething driver named Josh Mount to make deliveries and built up a client roster. “Many of them were end-of-life patients,” Hewitt says, and all held physician-ordered, medical-marijuana prescriptions. They only delivered to patients on the Peninsula and in Carmel Valley.
At 2:45pm last Aug. 12, Mount allegedly rolled his Pontiac Vibe through a stop sign at the intersection of Carmel and Seacrest Avenues in Marina. Officer Oliver Minnig pulled the Vibe over and ran a probation check on Mount. Minnig found Mount was on probation following a 2011 no contest plea for misdemeanor possession of a dangerous weapon and asked permission to search the car.
Hours later, Hewitt tracked Mount down in the Monterey County Jail.
A day-and-a-half later, Hewitt and Meyers were hiring an attorney (Richard Rosen), raising Mount’s bail money ($30,000) and figuring out how to defend their driver on a trio of felonies (transportation and possession, with intent to sell, of marijuana and hash). The Marina Police were cataloging the pot (about 121 grams), concentrates (upwards of 17 syringes) and tablets (more than 20) seized from a carrying case in the Vibe’s trunk.
And with the assistance of an informant whose identity remains confidential and whose testimony remains sealed, the police were also working on a search warrant to serve on Hewitt’s home so they could go after the motherlode.
Instead, they served the warrant on a house where Hewitt didn’t live – hadn’t lived in more than six years, in fact, although she never updated her driver’s license – and got her mom instead.
(Remember when P.G. Middle School went on lockdown one morning last August, when something like nine police cars streamed into the neighborhood and blocked the streets and alleyways and K9 dogs were brought in? This was why.)
“Everyone came in to my house with their guns and their dirty feet,” Hopkins says. “I was sitting here folding baby clothes, still in my pajamas and they were knocking at the door saying, ‘Open up, it’s the police.’”
She opened the door and an officer told her they were there to serve a search warrant. Hopkins estimates between eight and 10 officers came into her home. One put her against a wall (“Gently,” she says) and handcuffed her hands behind her back as they started a room-to-room search. They also asked Hopkins a lot of questions, insisting the baby clothes and toys scattered around were proof that Hewitt lived there (and not merely that Hopkins is a grandmother) even after she told them she had no intention of talking to them.
“I’m sure it’s standard operating procedure to come in with guns. But I didn’t feel I was any kind of a threat. I thought it was really overkill for what it was. It seemed so ridiculous and out of place,” she says. “If I had to give it one emotion, it was angry. I was furious they would come in here with guns.”
Partway through the search, Hopkins told an officer her hands were hurting. Someone uncuffed her and she was allowed to sit on a piano bench while the search continued.
The police left with nothing.
“When they came in, they used that tough tone, ‘You know why we’re here,’” Hopkins says. “When they left, they didn’t apologize, but he said, ‘I hope you understood why we were here.’”
She doesn’t, and she doesn’t pretend to either. Not when she’d witnessed how her brother-in-law’s final days were made more tolerable by cannabis tinctures, and how the effects of chemotherapy were lessened by her own use.
“I am passionate about it. I am passionately for it,” Hopkins says. “I think people know that it helps. It almost makes you feel the police are acting as vigilantes in this.”
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“It’s hard to find parallels to describe this practice,” says defense attorney Richard Rosen, who’s regarded as the go-to guy for medical marijuana cases in Monterey County. He’s spent the past two years working on the case of MyCaregiver Cooperative, a now-defunct cooperative that operated from a storefront on Lighthouse Avenue in New Monterey. In February 2011, the city of Monterey filed an inspection warrant on the location, and then shut it down. That case is still wending its way through an appeal.
He’s also representing Mount in the pending criminal case (due to be back in Monterey County Superior Court on Feb. 7) and he’s offered advice to Monsauret and Saunders too.
The standard they applied to the Hewitt warrant, he says, was to treat them like black-market drug dealers. But they never found what they were looking for, which was a big stash.
“Police serving warrants on the house of a suspected drug dealer usually try to come with overwhelming force. For the black-market drug dealer, who might be armed and be a career criminal, that might make sense,” Rosen says. “But we see these cases over and over where police ignore the medical marijuana law.”
Rosen hopes to get Mount’s case dismissed. For Monsauret and Saunders, he says, they should hang on until the state Supreme Court decides on the two remaining cases that could make their battle with the city a non-issue.
“They’ve got their heads up their asses in Marina,” Rosen says wearily. “The irony of this DA and the police is that they’re attacking legitimately operating collectives and dispensaries. They’re just going to drive it underground, and take it away from people who need it and from businesses that want to be regulated and taxed.”
Monsauret says she and Saunders are trying to get the City Council to agendize a change in the moratorium, to put it to a vote and lift any encumbrances. And if that fails, Coasterdam plans on taking the issue to court.
“We will pursue legal action, but I’m hoping we don’t have to go that route,” she says. “I am not a thug. I am a law student, I am a cancer survivor and I took care of a man who died in my arms in my home.”
If the city grants them a permit, Saunders adds, he and Monsauret are willing to enter into the most groundbreaking, innovative public-private partnership that has ever been crafted.
“It’s so glaringly obvious the city governments are decimated. Unless you’re living on Mars you can see the financial potential of this, and once you see that, you can capture it,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s going to be someone. If it’s not us it will be someone else.”