NEVADA: There’s always a fall guy. That one who sticks his neck out, rolls the dice, walks the fine line, then gets busted while others doing the same thing go free.
Pierre Werner says he’s that guy.
Werner is known for his gigantic Dr. Reefer billboard signs that dot the Las Vegas Valley. This legitimate medical marijuana referral service that he started has helped legalize hundreds of Nevada patients who rely on marijuana to treat their ills.
But he went too far. Werner, a three-time convicted felon with a past in drug deals, caved in to temptation and opened up an all-in-the-family pot dispensary on Pecos Road in Las Vegas and started to sell some of the hydroponic strains to some of the very patients he legalized, including undercover police officers.
And that landed him in federal prison.
Two weeks ago, the 42-year-old Werner was released from Terminal Island just outside of Los Angeles where he served more than 22 months.
He was one of nearly a dozen pot dispensary owners caught in raids carried out in Las Vegas in the fall of 2010 by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency with help from undercover officers from the Metropolitan Police Department.
But it was Werner who got the stiff sentence — 41 months.
“The feds did me dirty,” he said from inside his Las Vegas house, where he’s living with his mother these days while he looks to reinvent himself. “It’s time for somebody else to take up the cause.”
Pierre Werner someday could be viewed as an anomaly in local history if the medical marijuana movment keeps up its pace. Nevada next year will start licensing and taxing medical marijuana dispensaries for the first time. Twenty-two states have legalized its use to treat medical conditions and more are on their way. Many proponents are suggesting that the legalization of the drug for recreation use might follow.
In an interview last week, Werner talked about his time in prison and what has happened in the medical marijuana business since his time. He also talked about where he’s going from here.
CLUBHOUSE ON AN ISLAND
Terminal Island is a low-security federal prison that, by Werner’s own admission, doubled as “a virtual clubhouse on an island.”
It had a better view of the ocean than some coastal residents had from land, he said in a recent interview from his Las Vegas house where he’s living with his mother and looking to reinvent himself.
It had workout facilities and cable TV. Werner, a bilingual native of El Paso, Texas, would tune in each week to “Pablo Escobar: Patron de Mal,” a popular Colombian television series on the life of the drug lord who was killed in the early 1990s.
Prisoners didn’t pass time in cells with bars, Werner noted. They slept in college-like dormitories.
After 10 p.m. it was “lockdown time.” That’s when they would play poker or read books.
“I preferred to read books,” Werner said. “I had at least 30 marketing books sent to me. I thought I knew a lot about marketing from Dr. Reefer but those books turned me into a pro.”
It’s the same prison that that housed such infamous people as Chicago’s Al Capone in the late 1930s, New York City mobster Henry Hill in the 1970s — after whom the 1990 movie “Goodfellas” was based — and Timothy Leary, a Harvard professor who openly advocated the use of psychedelic drugs, ultimately coining the phrase: “Think for yourself and question authority.”
TARGET DR. REEFER
Werner isn’t as well known as those criminals and no movie deals are yet in the making, but he’s a local celebrity in his own right, at least among those who use marijuana for medical reasons.
While his criminal rap sheet reads like just about any other drug criminal’s, from possession of methamphetamine in the late 1980s in Carlsbad, N.M., when he was 18 to getting busted in New Jersey for possession of 170 pounds of marijuana in his early 30s — it was perhaps the “cat and mouse game” between him and federal authorities that made him somewhat of a hero.
At the crux was freedom of speech and freedom to advertise in a state where medical marijuana was already legal. And yet every time Werner put up one of his Dr. Reefer billboards, agents saw it as an affront to their careers and tried to take it down, he said. And if it wasn’t the feds, he said, it was the Mormon Church, which actually did succeed in taking down one of his billboards that stood on its land at Decatur Boulevard and the Las Vegas Beltway.
And yet the First Amendment often prevailed and Dr. Reefer’s referral company went gang busters for a long time, hooking up patients with appropriate doctors for diagnoses, then filing the paperwork with the state in order to secure medical marijuana cards for a fee of $300 to $400 each. At last count, Nevada had well over 3,000 medical marijuana patients, many of whom were made legal under Werner’s business.
Werner, who owns the Dr. Reefer trademark, said he’s amazed at how popular the movement has become, even while he was incarcerated.
“That’s when all of the dispensaries started to open up, when I started legalizing the people,” Werner said. “The name was just something I struck by accident. It was a combination of ‘Reefer Madness’ along with the fact that you needed a doctor to get your card. That’s where it was all born, but I had no clue that it would take off like it did.”